European Countries Enact New Lockdowns Amid Surge in Covid-19 Cases

Unlike the first round of indefinite lockdowns, most restrictions are planned to last about one month

Pedestrians cross an almost deserted Westminster Bridge as England enters a four-week lockdown to tackle the spread of coronavirus, on 05 November, 2020 in London, England
Initial lockdowns successfully slowed the spread of Covid-19 and saved lives, studies showed in June. But as countries reopened and people let their guard down, cases—particularly in Western countries—began to rise again. Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images

At the end of October, Europe as a whole surpassed the United States in Covid-19 cases per capita. Now, several European countries are beginning new lockdowns to stem the spread of a second wave of the pandemic, Kai Kupferschmidt reports for Science magazine.

The United Kingdom begins its four-week national lockdown on Thursday, November 5, joining Germany, France, and two regions of Spain that had already renewed restrictions. Greece and Norway also announced new lockdown measures this week, reports Reuters. By closing nonessential businesses, limiting travel and enacting new curfews, the countries aim to slow the spread of Covid-19 while keeping essential businesses—like hospitals and, in some cases, schools—open.

When China first enacted lockdowns early in the pandemic, the measure seemed drastic. But as Covid-19, a respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, spread around the world, lockdowns aimed at flattening the curve of disease transmission followed. Initial lockdowns successfully slowed the spread of Covid-19 and saved lives, studies showed in June. But as countries reopened and people let their guard down, cases—particularly in Western countries—began to rise again.

Cooler winter weather has both pushed people indoors, increasing the likelihood of transmission between people, and provided an environment where the virus may survive longer.

“I think winter does make things much harder,” says London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine disease modeler Adam Kucharski to Science magazine. “Countries have probably been doing control on ‘easy’ setting over the summer.”

Since the first lockdowns in the spring, countries and municipalities have enacted mask-wearing policies, scientists have learned more about how the virus spreads through the air and doctors have learned how to better manage the symptoms of seriously ill Covid-19 patients, Roni Caryn Rabin reported for the New York Times in October. But the latter relies on hospitals having the space in intensive care units for the patients who need it. The recent surge in cases threatens to test hospital capacity again.

In the U.K., scientists estimate that hospitals could reach capacity by the first week in December if cases continue to rise at their current rate, report Mark Landler and Stephen Castle at the New York Times. To flatten the curve, the country has required that people stay home except to go to school, go to work at an essential job, buy food or seek medical care. Shops deemed non-essential have closed, pubs and restaurants can only serve takeout and people have been urged not to travel. Liverpool also announced a plan this week to test the city’s entire population for Covid-19, BBC News reports. (China accomplished a whole-city testing program in five days in October.)

In Germany, hotels have been directed not to host tourists, Science magazine reports. There, people are also encouraged to have contact with at most one other household. Social gathering places like restaurants, bars, gyms and venues have closed while schools and workplaces remain open, per BBC News.

Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg instructed Norwegians to avoid travel, even domestic travel, and to stay home as much as possible, telling parliament: “We don’t have time to wait and see if the measures we introduced last week are enough,” Reuters reports.

Greece will start a three-week national lockdown now, too.

A lockdown is an opportunity for a country to pause transmission and bring case numbers down to zero. But any remaining cases give the virus an opportunity to come back when government measures expire.

“The infectious seeds in the community have always remained above a certain threshold,” says Gabriel Leung, an epidemiologist to the University of Hong Kong, to Science magazine. “Where if you relax the physical distancing, it’s all going to come back.”

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