Europe sounds alarm over resurgent virus crisis

Stockholm (AFP) –


The EU's disease control agency on Friday joined frantic health workers across Europe in sounding the alarm about the surge in coronavirus infections.

Several countries in Europe are reporting infection rates higher than during the first wave of the pandemic in March and April, with Spain saying it has now more than three million cases.

Governments across the continent are slapping urgent new restrictions on daily life, with France extending a curfew to cover 46 million people and Ireland locked down again.

"The continuing increases in Covid-19 infections... pose a major threat to public health, with most countries having a highly concerning epidemiological situation," said Andrea Ammon, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

The agency said all EU countries except Cyprus, Estonia, Finland and Greece fell into a "serious concern" category, as did the United Kingdom, up from just seven a month ago.

Across the planet, Covid-19 has now claimed the lives of 1.1 million people -- about one fifth in the United States -- and infected close to 42 million.

"We're losing. We're overwhelmed. We're bitter," said Benoit Misset, head of the intensive care unit at the University Hospital in the Belgian city of Liege, where several of his staff are having to work despite being Covid-positive -- if asymptomatic -- themselves.

Brussels and Wallonia, the French-speaking region of which Liege is a major city, are now the epicentres of Europe's renewed crisis.

"It's trench warfare", with the difference that "it's not bombs, it's a virus" and "it's the virus calling the shots, not us, not politicians, not scientists," Misset told AFP.

- 'Many positive people in streets' -

In France, the boss of Paris public hospital group AP-HP warned the second wave could be worse than the first as the government expanded a nighttime curfew to cover more than two-thirds of the population.

"There are many positive people, infectious, in the streets without knowing it and without anyone else knowing it," Martin Hirsch told French radio.

Spain officially became the first EU nation -- and only the sixth in the world -- to surpass one million confirmed Covid-19 infections on Wednesday.

But in a televised address on Friday, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the "real number" of cases was actually more than three million.

Several regional authorities have announced new measures, with the Madrid region banning household gatherings from midnight to 6 am and halving capacity in bars and restaurants.

- 'Marathon, not a sprint' -

Wales was set to enter a full lockdown on Friday evening, a day after Ireland shut down.

Poland meanwhile adopted a nationwide "red zone" lockdown that includes the partial closure of primary schools and restaurants.

Only Sweden, which famously refused to lock down earlier this year, continued to stick to its guns despite a rise in cases.

It advised locals in the university town of Uppsala to avoid public transport and contact with people outside their own household for a few days after a spike in infections since students returned.

And it limited the number of people allowed in nightclubs. Other than that, life goes on much like before as the authorities stress that Sweden's strategy is to cope with a "marathon, not a sprint."

- Czech minister under fire -

Infection control measures have drawn the ire of many struggling to keep their businesses or jobs from going under in the pandemic-induced economic downturn.

As such, the Czech Republic was up in arms after Health Minister Roman Prymula was caught -- maskless -- leaving a restaurant that should have been closed under his own restrictions.

He insists he was having a meeting in premises adjacent to the restaurant.

As the pandemic lingers, governments have been forced to dive in and help businesses being buffeted by a constant seesaw of lockdowns and reopenings.

Struggling Scandinavian airline SAS said Sweden and Denmark agreed to increase their stakes to try to help it weather the crisis.

Adding to the gloom, data provider IHS Markit said the eurozone's economic activity contracted in October for the first time since June.

And the Eiffel Tower in Paris -- one of the world's most visited sites -- is experiencing a collapse in visitor numbers, with ticket sales down 80 percent.

But bucking the trend, British retail sales climbed in September for the fifth month in a row.