Health and Science

France, Germany and England impose new lockdowns as pandemic fatigue seeps in across Europe and Covid cases soar

Key Points
  • Europe is already seeing new Covid cases and deaths soar, prompting governments to roll out strict lockdown measures to slow the spread.
  • Since the beginning of the pandemic, many epidemiologists in the U.S. have looked to Europe as something of a harbinger of what's to come to the U.S.
  • Now, epidemiologists and public health specialists are warning that the U.S. could share a similar fate as Europe if action isn't taken quickly to counter the autumn surge.
Health workers carry a patient on a stretcher from an ambulance at the Scorff hospital during a transfer operation of people suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Lorient, France, November 4, 2020.
Stephane Mahe | Reuters

People are tired in France where President Emanuel Macron imposed the country's second nationwide lockdown beginning Friday to combat a resurgence of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, says Parisian videographer Joseph Savage.

"There was a kind of united front the last time around – people were excited to do this together," Savage, 34, told CNBC in an interview. "We know that we have to do it again, but the general consensus is that people are fed up and a bit sad to go through it again and not knowing when it's going to end." 

Retired 70-year-old dental nurse Kathleen Williams, who lives in Lancashire, England, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson just instituted a new four-week stay-at-home order that starts Thursday, agrees. The new lockdown order allows people to leave their homes only for essential purposes, like going to school, the doctor and grocery stores. Williams says the cold weather makes it more isolating this time around.

"People are getting a bit worn down with it all and seem to breaking the rules a bit more," she said in an interview. Williams and her husband, who's also retired, are fine, she said. "We just get on with it. But people who aren't in a couple like us, I think they're getting weary of it."

Commuters cross London Bridge in view of Tower Bridge in London, U.K., on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.
Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As the United States teeters on the edge of what some say is the start of a dark winter with roughly 90,000 new Covid-19 cases per day, Europe is already seeing an "astronomical" number of new cases and deaths, prompting governments to roll out strict lockdown measures to slow the spread. Like the U.S., pandemic fatigue has set in across Europe where residents say pubs and bars in the U.K. and France have been packed ahead of the lockdowns. It's led to a resurgence in the virus across Europe and America where people miss human contact and have grown weary of working in isolation for months on end.

The worsening outbreak in Europe is starting to strain hospital systems there, which epidemiologists worry will happen in the U.S. in the coming weeks.

Over the past seven days, France reported an average of more than 31,000 new cases a day on Tuesday following a record of 53,464 average new cases on Sunday, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The United Kingdom has averaged more than 22,347 new cases per day over the previous week, Johns Hopkins data shows. Italy reported a record 27,864 average new cases on Tuesday, up 58% from the previous week, according to the data.

Germany reported a seven-day average of 17,048 new cases Monday, a record and up by a whopping 63% compared with a week ago, according to Johns Hopkins data. The steep rise led Chancellor Angela Merkel to announce a new "partial lockdown" last week to avoid overwhelming hospitals. Bars, theaters and clubs will be closed with restaurants limited to carryout and delivery service.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel takes off her face mask as she gives a press conference on the actual situation amid the novel coronavirus / COVID-19 pandemic, following a meeting with her so-called Corona-Cabinet, on November 2, 2020 in Berlin.
Kay Nietfeld | AFP | Getty Images

Like in the U.S., there have been demonstrations across Germany, protesting the restrictions, said Dr. Bill Schaffner, an epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University whose son lives in Berlin.

"There is fatigue and I actually characterize it as annoyance at the fact that this virus, which they cannot see, has intruded on their lives and upset us, economically, socially, culturally in every way," he said. "They're annoyed at the virus. They want it to just go away."

Lara-Maria Kullak-Ublick, a 33-year-old account manager in Berlin, said she only complies with the rules and restrictions in public "out of respect and consideration for other people."

"Personally, I am not very afraid of corona and therefore do not follow the rules for myself," she said. "In my private life I am therefore not that strict and also meet more people than allowed and do not keep the desired safety distance from these people, unless they want to."

David Cain, a senior management consultant for the U.K.'s National Health Service, said people strictly followed the rules there at the beginning of the outbreak, but that's changed.

Cain said some people have been reluctant to cooperate with contact tracers because they don't want to be asked to remain home and potentially lose income. He added that not as many people are volunteering now to deliver groceries and other supplies to more at-risk individuals.

"I don't think people are adhering to lockdown like they were at the start," he said. "They're not staying in. I think people are now a little bit: this has gone on too long. That's not our view, but people are weary with it; they're not sure."

It's a similar story in the U.S. where cases have started to surge again over the past month. If Americans can't follow mask and social distancing rules, U.S. policymakers may need to consider more statewide and local lockdowns like those seen in Europe, Dr. Syra Madad, senior director of the systemwide special pathogens program at New York City Health + Hospitals, said

"If cases continue to rise, that means the virus is winning and then we're going to have to go into these massive shelter-in-place situations that you're seeing across Europe," she said. "Whether you're in the United States or whether you're in Europe, either you decide what to do or the virus is going to decide for you."

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said the U.S. outbreak is about three weeks behind Europe, where cases are "astronomical."

"If we get to the levels of some of the European countries like France and Italy, Spain, the U.K. are experiencing, it's going to really press our health-care system across the country," he told CNBC last week.

Dominique Costagliola, an epidemiologist at the Inserm research institute in Paris, said there are a number of parallels between the outbreak in France and the one in the U.S. She said the outbreaks in both countries are distinct from what was seen this spring in that the virus is now widely circulating in rural communities.

"Initially the rise was mainly seen in the cities and suburbs of the cities, but now it's everywhere," Costagliola said in a phone interview. "This week, you can see that the situation is worsening everywhere, including outside the cities."

Both the U.S. and France have drastically ramped up testing compared with this spring, Costagliola added. However, she said, the contact tracing infrastructure around testing has been largely forgotten in both the U.S. and France, which has hampered the responses in both countries.

"It's bizarre that after what happened in March, most of the European countries don't realize that the sooner you do take the measures, the better," she said. "When you've got the small fire, it's easier to care for it than when you have just fire everywhere in the country at a very high level. We need to act now, act early."

A woman walks past a poster featuring a nurse wearing a protective mask and thanking all the professions that have supported the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic on a street in Rennes, western France on November 02, 2020, as France is under a new general lockdown to curb the spread of the Covid-19 novel coronavirus.
Damien Meyer | AFP | Getty Images

France last week entered a lockdown period where all residents must stay inside, except to get groceries and conduct other essential business, or risk fines and criminal prosecution.

Unlike under the previous lockdown in March, schools will stay open.

Bars in Paris were "packed" last week with people "having one last night before locking down again," said Savage, the videographer in Paris.

"This is enough – it worked last time. I'm not sure if people are going to respect it as much as last time because people are tired, it's autumn. The end of the year. People are a bit disillusioned," he said. "The youth are less fearful than they were first time around."

Liz Warren, a 30-year-old freelancer in Paris, said she's upset the French government didn't crack down sooner. She said she's been following the rules. Warren added that "if you're not wearing a mask outside you will get stares."

"I feel slightly enraged about that announcement only because the French government acted way too late on the whole situation — when I think back to August and September everything was still extremely lax and no one was really wearing masks on the streets, everyone was piling into the terraces outside," she said.

Hannah Weiler, a 25-year-old medical student in Cologne, Germany, said she follows the rules about 95% of the time. But, she said, she's observed others not wearing a mask in public and failing to social distance.

"People just need to be disciplined more, really, and show some more solidarity," she said. The new restrictions, she added, "just forces people to meet up at home privately again, which is way worse because that's where you have no hygiene barriers, you have no walls, it's not regulated."

-- CNBC's Elliot Smith, Lucy Handley in London, Natasha Turak in Dubai, and Nate Rattner and Noah Higgins-Dunn in New York contributed to this article.

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UK Prime Minister Johnson imposes one month stay-at-home order in England

Disclosure: Dr. Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic-testing start-up Tempus and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings′ and Royal Caribbean's Healthy Sail Panel.