As Europe introduces more and more restrictive measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the leader of the World Health Organization's (WHO) office in the region has said that full-scale lockdowns should be a "very, very last resort."
"A proportional and targeted response is the way forward. Measures or tightening up in many countries in Europe ... are appropriate and necessary responses to what the data is telling us," Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO's regional director for Europe, said Thursday.
"It is never too late (to tighten measures) but of course, definitely, we are concerned. In general, this is the time to step up the restrictive measures ... with lockdowns as a very, very last resort. We know much better than in March what can, and needs, to be done."
Kluge cited models that suggested a far greater and generalized adherence to mask-wearing and strict controls on social gathering in both public and private spaces could save up to 281,000 lives by February 2021 across 53 countries that come under WHO Europe's regional office.
"The pandemic won't reverse its course on its own, but we will," he said, praising moves by governments around Europe to tighten Covid-19 restrictions. "We need to be uncompromising," he said as he called for a "systematic and generalized" adherence to the basic measures of mask-wearing and social distancing.
"These measures are meant to keep us all ahead of the curve and to flatten its course ... Any further escalation of measures would be the result of failure in complying with the preceding ones, it is therefore up to us to accept them while they are still relatively easy to follow," he said.
Asked whether he is for or against nationwide lockdowns, he reiterated that the pandemic of today "is not the same as the pandemic of yesterday" both in terms of the transmission dynamic, but also in the ways that governments can tackle it.
In March, lockdown was "a shutdown," he said, with no outings, schools shut and movement curtailed. But "today lockdown means a very different thing, it means a step-by-step escalation of proportionate, targeted and time-limited measures," he said.
Any national lockdowns must consider direct risks and "collateral damage" associated with the pandemic, such as the mental health impact, gender-based domestic violence and the impact on students.
Europe now has over 7.2 million confirmed cases of the virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and hospitalizations are rising at a worrying rate.
"The full winter surge continues to unfold in Europe with exponential increases in daily cases and matching percentage increases in daily deaths. The evolving epidemiological situation in Europe raises great concern," Kluge said.
"Daily numbers of cases are up, hospital admissions are up ... the region has registered the highest weekly incidence of Covid-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with almost 700,000 cases reported."
In the last 24 hours, France has declared a public health state of emergency, the U.K. is approaching a second national lockdown and Germany has introduced a raft of new rules in an effort to lower the infection rate.
WHO's Kluge insisted that the situation facing Europe now was not the same as the one it faced back in March.
"Does it mean we are back to mid-March? No, we are not. Although we record two to three-times more cases per day compared to the April peak, we still observe five times less deaths, and a doubling time in hospital admissions still two-to-three times longer (than in March)."
In the meantime, the virus has not changed, "it has not become more nor less dangerous," he said.
He added that the situation could deteriorate if the the virus spreads back among older age groups.