Health and Science

Europe looks for lockdown exit strategy as rate of new coronavirus cases and deaths slows

Key Points
  • Italy, which was the epicenter of Europe's pandemic before Spain overtook it in terms of the number of cases, reported its lowest daily COVID-19 death toll for more than two weeks on Sunday.
  • Spain reported 637 new deaths Monday, down from 674 the previous day, and continuing a downwards trend after a peak of 950 recorded on Thursday.
A nurse and a firefighter talking are seen in the Villalba General Hospital on April 05, 2020 in Madrid, Spain.
David Benito

There are tentative hopes in Europe that the coronavirus outbreak could be slowing, as the number of new infections and fatalities starts to slow down, according to data over the weekend.

The figures are prompting European leaders to look for an exit strategy to national lockdowns, while urging the public to maintain discipline while the apparent recovery from the outbreak is in its infancy.

Italy, the epicenter of Europe's pandemic, reported its lowest daily COVID-19 death toll for more than two weeks on Sunday. The Civil Protection Agency said there had been a rise of 525 deaths from a day earlier — the smallest daily increase since March 19, Reuters noted. On Saturday, there had been a rise of 681 deaths, and the day before that, a rise of 766 deaths, so the numbers are going in the right direction. 

Italy has recorded 128,948 cases of the coronavirus to date, and 15,887 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, meaning it has the highest death toll in Europe.

Rome has implemented some of the most draconian restrictions in the world, imposing a national lockdown on March 12, but there were hints Sunday that it could start to look for a way to ease the measures the near future.

"The curve has started its descent and the number of deaths has started to drop," Italy's ISS national health institute Director Silvio Brusaferro told reporters.

"If these data are confirmed (in the coming days), we will have to start thinking about Phase 2," he said. However, he noted that there needed to be consistency in the slowdown in numbers. "It is a result that we have to achieve day after day," he said.

In Spain, which now has a higher number of infections than Italy (at 131,646 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University) the rate of new infections and deaths also continued to decline this weekend: Sunday's rise in the number of deaths (674 new deaths, down from 809 reported Saturday) was about half the rate reported a week ago.

"The data from this week and today confirms the slowing down of infections," Spain's Health Minister Salvador Illa told a news conference, Reuters reported. "The data confirms that confinement is working."

Mid-morning on Monday, Spain reported 637 deaths in the previous 24 hours, continuing the downwards trend.  Both France and Germany have also reported falls in their daily death tolls.

France's health ministry said Sunday that the daily death toll from the coronavirus fell in the past 24 hours and admissions into intensive care also slowed. It said 357 people had died in hospitals, down from 441 the previous day. France has recorded a total number of deaths of 8,093, according to Johns Hopkins.

Germany reported a slowdown in the rate of new cases for a fourth consecutive day in a row Monday, with a rise of 3,677 cases from the previous day, and a rise of 92 deaths, data collated by Germany's public health body, the Richard Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases, showed. 

In total, Germany has 95,391 confirmed cases of the virus but has recorded a total of 1,434 deaths from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University. The low death rate has been attributed to widespread testing, a robust healthcare system and a bit of luck, in that its first cases were among younger people.

Step by step

Nonetheless, bodies like the RKI are cautious about forecasting how Germany's epidemic will progress, telling CNBC that Germany "is still at the beginning of its epidemic." Meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday that the data was encouraging, but she urged the German public to maintain social distancing and hygiene measures.

"It is true that the latest number (of new cases) from the Robert Koch Institute (for infectious diseases), which remain high, give reason for a very cautious hope," Merkel said, Reuters reported.

She added that the government was now thinking "about how we can simultaneously achieve two things: securing health protection for all, and also starting a process so that public life returns step by step."

Germany, Italy and Spain have all extended lockdown measures to April 19, April 12 and April 25, respectively. The U.K. said it would review its lockdown after April 12 (when it's estimated the virus could peak in the country). 

Widespread testing is one way to exit lockdown measures gradually, but testing regimes have varied widely in Europe. Germany, which is conducting widespread testing, and the U.K., which has not, have been considering some kind of "immunity passport" that would allow individuals who have been exposed to the virus and are now immune to it, to return to work and their normal daily routines.

Weighing up public and economic health is at the forefront of leaders' minds. Get the timing of lifting restrictions wrong and a wave of new coronavirus cases could flood already severely pressured healthcare services in Europe. Leave it too long, and Europe's economy will enter an even more prolonged downturn. It's already estimated it could take two years for the region to return to late-2019 gross domestic product levels.

Still, investors are hopeful; European markets rose sharply Monday as they reacted to the slowing down in the rate of new coronavirus infections in the region.

UBS strategists led by Mark Haefele, chief investment officer global wealth management, said in a daily report Monday that market performance in the region, in the near term, "depends on how quickly economic activity can normalize following measures to contain the virus; and 2) the extent to which policy responses can limit bankruptcies and job losses."

"We continue to closely monitor data on the spread of the virus and the proposed length of lockdowns," he said.

"We think the data is still broadly consistent with our central scenario in which new cases reach a first peak in Europe by early April and in the U.S. by mid-April, with the most severe restrictions to limit the spread lifted by mid-May."