Europe’s whack-a-mole strategy of imposing local lockdowns to squash the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic didn’t work. Now it’s time to pull out the big guns.
Germany and France both announced new four-week national lockdowns on Wednesday night. They followed the Czech Republic and Ireland, which put country-wide restrictions in place earlier this month. Spain and the United Kingdom could be next.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the local measures imposed on a number of major cities including Paris over the past few weeks were “not working anymore” and that a national lockdown was needed. Under the new rules, people will only be allowed to leave their homes to go to work or school, for a medical appointment, to care for a relative, to do essential shopping and to exercise. Non-essential businesses, restaurants and bars will be closed. Like in the spring, they will need a certificate to venture outside.
Macron’s speech came just hours after Germany also gave up on local lockdowns, announcing a nationwide stay-at-home order starting next Monday after regional restrictions in major cities including Frankfurt, Berlin and Stuttgart and a partial lockdown in the state of Bavaria failed to slow down the spread of the virus.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said people residing in Germany are advised to stay home, avoid travel and “keep their contacts to an absolute minimum.” Social contacts will be limited to two households in public.
Professor Igor Rudan, the joint director of the Centre for Global Health and World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre at the University of Edinburgh, said the measures put in place over the past two months across most of Europe were “clearly insufficient” to prevent the fast spread of the virus.
The decision by France and Germany is an acknowledgement that their attempts to control the outbreaks through local measures have failed. Some European countries, however, are still resisting nationwide lockdowns, despite their surging case numbers.
Scientists at Imperial College London warned Thursday that the UK government’s current three-tier approach to the epidemic isn’t working. They found that the number of positive cases in England was doubling every nine days and warned that stricter measures need to be put in place to slow down the spread of the disease.
Based on their analysis of 85,971 random swabs, the Imperial College team estimated around 96,000 people are currently getting infected in England every day – about five times more than the official daily case counts at the moment.
“We’re seeing a nation-wide increase in infection prevalence, which we know will lead to more hospitalizations and loss of life,” Professor Paul Elliott, the director of the study, said in a news release. “Now more than ever we must all work together to curb further spread of the virus and avoid subsequent overwhelming of the health service,” he added.
The UK government has so far resisted a new national lockdown. Speaking to the BBC on Thursday, British housing minister Robert Jenrick said a national lockdown is not “inevitable,” adding that the government favors “taking action in places where the virus is most concentrated and avoiding some of the actions you see happening in continental Europe.”
Rudan said there were likely many reasons why the measures didn’t prevent new large outbreaks. “Viruses have complex transmission dynamics. For the novel coronavirus, it has been shown that it largely depends on people’s behaviour and movement,” he told CNN in an email. “However, it is likely that it can also be affected by factors that we do not fully understand and cannot easily control.”
That’s why, Rudan said, measures that may have worked well to keep the epidemic under control at one point in time might require strengthening at another to prevent the outbreak from growing exponentially.
The new measures are coming into place in many European countries despite a rising number of anti-lockdown protests across the continent. Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic and the UK have all seen demonstrations – some violent – in recent weeks.
The fact that some people are feeling disgruntled and fatigued might be another reason why Europe’s local lockdowns failed. Scientists have been saying from the start that for the localized strategy to work, everyone needs to do their bit. The health authorities must be able to step in quickly, and people must respect the lockdowns and take the risk seriously.
That was something Merkel underscored after she announced the new German lockdown measures. “Lies and disinformation, conspiracy, and hatred damage not only the democratic debate, but also the fight against the virus,” she said Thursday.