Europe Economy

Europe struggles to break free of Covid restrictions as delta variant surges

Key Points
  • France, the Netherlands, Greece and Spain all announced new restrictions on Monday in a bid to curb the rise in Covid infections as a result of the delta variant.
  • Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte admitted on Monday that restrictions had been lifted too soon.
  • In sharp contrast to its continental cousins, the U.K. confirmed that it will lift its remaining restrictions on July 19, despite its own infection rate remaining high.
People celebrated the end of the coronavirus curfew in Barcelona, Spain, on May 9, 2021. Now, Catalonia is reimposing restrictions amid a surge in Covid cases.
NurPhoto | NurPhoto | Getty Images

LONDON — Europe is struggling to contain a surge in Covid-19 cases caused by the delta variant, but while several countries reimpose measures to control the spread, the U.K. is taking the plunge and lifting restrictions.

From residual vaccine skepticism in some countries, to surges in infections linked to nightlife resuming, Europe is having to contend with competing needs: the reopening of crucial economic sectors this summer, while at the same time, curbing surging cases.

It's not an easy balance to strike and, erring on the side of caution, a number of countries – including France, the Netherlands, Greece and Spain – announced new restrictions on Monday in a bid to curb the rise in infections, particularly among younger people who are the last in the queue to be vaccinated against Covid.

Mandatory vaccines?

In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced that for health and care workers, vaccines would be mandatory, and that a "health pass" (an app showing one's vaccination status or recent negative test) would soon be required to access culture or leisure venues of a larger capacity. From August, the pass will be mandatory to access cafes, restaurants, malls, planes and trains in France. Lastly, in a bid to encourage vaccination take-up, PCR tests will stop being free from the fall unless they're part of a prescription.

"If we do not act today, the number of cases will continue to rise sharply, and will inevitably lead to increased hospitalizations from the month of August," Macron told the public in a televised address.

Similarly, Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis also gave a televised address Monday in which he announced that Covid shots would be mandatory for nursing home and healthcare workers and that only vaccinated people will be allowed indoors in bars, cinemas, theaters and enclosed spaces.

Greece, like France, has struggled to encourage vaccine take up among more skeptical members of the public.

Imploring people to take up Covid shots, Mitsotakis said: "The country will not be shut down again by the attitude of some. It will give freedom to many. And protection for all. Because it is not Greece that is in danger, but the unvaccinated Greeks."

Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, told CNBC Tuesday that the divergent approaches showed just how nuanced the issue was.

"[It illustrates] how difficult it is and hard for any policy makers and scientists to make assertions against such a formidable and unpredictable foe," he said. "We make predictions at our peril."

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The highly-transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus is reeking particular havoc among Europe's younger populations as economies had started to allow their nightlife leisure venues to reopen, some after many months of closure. Vaccination rates among younger people lag in the region, however, with many only just being invited to receive their first dose.

While countries like France and Greece are still struggling to convince everyone to get the vaccine, other countries are rushing to administer shots to younger people, seen as both vectors of the virus through socializing, and more vulnerable given their partial or unvaccinated status.

A study in the U.K. in May found that two doses of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or AstraZeneca-University of Oxford vaccine give effective protection against the delta Covid variant, first discovered in India. Having just one dose, or being unvaccinated, makes individuals far more vulnerable to infection, however.

Rising Covid infections saw Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte admit on Monday that Covid restrictions had been lifted too soon at the end of June. On Monday, 8,522 new Covid cases were confirmed and on Saturday, the country reported its highest number of cases since Christmas.

Rutte's comments came after the government conceded it was caught off-guard by the rising infection rate. It announced Friday that it would have to reimpose rules on bars and restaurants and close nightclubs, just days after they were reopened, in a bid to curb the spread among younger people.

Spain has also had to backtrack on the lifting of measures. On Monday, officials said the country's two-week Covid-19 contagion rate was still rising, more than tripling in two weeks, Reuters reported. However, health emergency chief Fernando Simon said the pace of increase had reduced in recent days and the latest wave could be nearing its peak.

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Nonetheless, new restrictions were announced in Catalonia and Valencia last week, including the closure of most night-time venues, as well as limits on social gatherings. In Valencia, the regional government asked its court to authorize a curfew on towns with more than 5,000 inhabitants that are considered high-risk, including on its capital Valencia and tourist favorite Benicassim.

For its part, Germany is seeing a slow rise (albeit from a low level) in Covid infections as many parts of the country relax restrictions.

There is a reluctance among officials (including Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas) to continue restrictions any longer than necessary. Nonetheless, the country is watching what's happening in neighboring nations carefully. 

Since Sunday, Germany has imposed stricter restrictions on visitors from Spain who must now present proof of vaccination against Covid, proof of recent recovery from the virus or negative test results otherwise they must quarantine on arrival.

In sharp contrast, the UK

In sharp contrast to its continental cousins, the U.K. government confirmed on Monday that it will lift its remaining restrictions on July 19, despite its own infection rate remaining high. Over 34,000 new cases were reported in the U.K. Monday, marking the sixth consecutive day that Covid infections have been above 30,000.

Speaking in Parliament, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said that after monitoring the latest data, the government does not expect Covid infection rates to put unsustainable pressure on the National Health Service.

"We firmly believe that this is the right time to get our nation closer to normal life," Javid said.

"Now, to those who say: Why take this step now? I say, if not now, when? There will never be a perfect time to take this step because we simply cannot eradicate this virus."

Professor Altmann said the U.K.'s strategy was "a gamble," but noted that, with its advanced vaccination program, the country was not in the same place as in the start of the year when the alpha variant emerged.

"Because of the vaccine we're in a different place but let's not construe that as meaning that the NHS isn't under pressure or NHS doctors aren't terrified of another wave. There are still dangers out there," he said.

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