As pressure builds on the British government to reverse plans to relax coronavirus rules during the holiday season, other countries across Europe are rapidly rethinking their own plans in the face of a looming COVID-19 third wave.
Germany and the Netherlands have imposed sweeping new restrictions for the holidays, while the Italian government is expected to follow suit.
“New restrictions are now needed,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Tuesday. “We must avert at all costs a third wave.”
Spain’s prime minister warned Wednesday that tougher regulations for Christmas may be necessary if infections continue to increase. And just days ago, France announced that the country would tighten its rules over the holidays, including by imposing an 8 p.m. curfew except on Christmas Eve.
Europe’s stricter rules come amid warnings from U.S. infectious diseases official Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said Christmas and Hanukkah may bring more COVID-19 cases in the United States than the surge anticipated from Thanksgiving, due to the number of days people are likely to spend celebrating with family and friends.
England’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, has joined the chorus of European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, begging their citizens to reduce contact with other people and avoid turning festive gatherings into superspreader events.
Last month, Britain agreed with the devolved administrations to allow a maximum of three households to meet between Dec. 23 and Dec. 27, regardless of what local restrictions are in place. But its rules now appear to be looser and more at odds with those of its European neighbors.
Germany entered a strict lockdown on Wednesday just as it registered a record number of 952 deaths from COVID-19 in a single day. The previous highest daily increase in deaths was 598 on Friday.
Starting this week, Germany will only keep essential shops open until at least Jan. 10, and private gatherings will remain limited to no more than five people from two households.
Rules will be eased from Dec. 24 to Dec. 26 so that a single household can gather with four close family members from other households, but the government recommends that family members quarantine for at least a week before the gatherings.
The Robert Koch Institute on Wednesday put the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany at 1,379,238, a daily increase of 27,728. The total death toll stands at 23,427. In the United Kingdom, another 18,450 new infections were announced on Tuesday.
The Italian government is considering more stringent nationwide rules for Christmas and New Year after crowds flocked to city centers over the weekend — just after Rome had relaxed some COVID-19 restrictions. Police were forced to close off popular sites, including Rome’s Trevi Fountain, due to the large crowds.
“We must avert at all costs a third wave, because this would be devastating, also from the point of view of the loss of lives,” Conte said Tuesday.
Under an earlier decree, Italians will not be able to attend midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and will be only allowed to move between regions in the event of an emergency between Dec. 20 and Jan. 6. Pope Francis’ Christmas Eve Mass will start two hours earlier, allowing the limited number of people who can attend to get home by 10 p.m.
However, government leaders will meet again on Thursday for crucial talks over whether to further tighten the rules, with a partial national lockdown from Dec. 24 to at least Jan. 2 in the cards, HuffPost Italy reported. Curfew extensions, a ban on nonessential travel and closures of nonessential shops, bars and restaurants on weekends and bank holidays are also being considered.
Italy reported 484 coronavirus-related deaths on Sunday after surpassing the U.K. the previous day as the European country with the highest death toll.
After announcing that up to 10 people per household — instead of the previously allowed six — would be allowed to gather for Christmas and New Year in Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez warned Wednesday that he would propose stricter rules if COVID-19 infections continued to climb.
Under the current Christmas plans, curfews will be pushed back from 11 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 24 and Dec. 31. Movement between regions will be banned between Dec. 23 and Jan. 6, except for visits to family.
However, speaking to Spain’s Parliament, Sánchez described the recent rise in infections as “worrying” and left open the possibility of strengthening the rules, HuffPost Spain reported.
“It is up to us not to open the door to a third wave at Christmas. If it is necessary to toughen the Christmas plan, the government will propose it,” Sánchez said Wednesday. “Let’s not throw everything away. It depends on us that there is no third wave.”
Data from Spain’s health ministry showed that 10,328 new coronavirus cases were reported on Tuesday, bringing the nationwide total since the onset of the pandemic to 1,762,212 infections.
At the end of November, the French government paved the way for easing its lockdown in stages, including lifting the 9 p.m. curfew for Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations, under one condition — the daily number of coronavirus cases had to fall below 5,000.
But the seven-day average of new daily infections still stands at around 10,000. On Tuesday, France lifted its stay-at-home order and replaced it with an 8 p.m. nightly curfew, which will be waived for Christmas Eve only.
Anyone found breaking the curfew is liable for a $165 fine.
“I know your weariness, your doubts, your sufferings. I share them,” Prime Minister Jean Castex said last week. “But first, I owe you the truth and transparency about this epidemic, which is going on longer than we would have liked.”
While travel will be allowed on Dec. 24, no more than six adults can meet at a time. Cinemas and museums will remain closed, and bars and restaurants are shut until at least mid-January.
The Netherlands has gone into an immediate five-week lockdown requiring all schools and nonessential shops to close. Gatherings will be limited to two people, although that limit will be expanded to three adult visitors over three days during the Christmas period.
All public places — including day care centers, gyms, museums, zoos, cinemas and hair and beauty salons — closed Tuesday, and they will remain closed until Jan. 19. Schools remain closed until Jan. 18.
“The Netherlands is closing down,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Monday in a rare live television address. “We realize the gravity of our decisions, right before Christmas.”
Despite restrictions, shopping districts across the Netherlands have been crowded for weeks. A spike in infections occurred after the Dec. 5 gift-giving celebrations marking the birthday of Saint Nicholas.
On Monday morning, the country of 17 million hit a record in the daily number of new coronavirus cases, which increased by around 8,500 within 24 hours. This followed a jump by almost 10,000 a day earlier, which was the biggest rise in more than six weeks.
Elsewhere In Europe
Belgian households will only be able to have close contact with one extra person over Christmas. People living on their own will be allowed to meet with two others. Fireworks will be banned on New Year’s Eve, and foreign travel is strongly discouraged.
Hair salons and bookstores in Greece will reopen during Christmas, while other restrictions will remain in place until Jan. 7. Churches will open for the Christmas and Epiphany Masses on Dec. 25 and Jan. 6, with a limited number of worshippers.
There will be no limit on how many people can gather per household for Christmas in Portugal. The curfew will be pushed back from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Dec. 24 and Dec. 25. For New Year’s Eve, street parties will be banned and outdoor gatherings will be limited to a maximum of six people.
Norwegians will be able to invite up to 10 guests into their homes on two separate occasions between Christmas and New Year. Outside of those days, the current limit of up to five guests will apply.
In Ireland, members of up to three households will be allowed to meet between Dec. 18 and Jan. 6, and the countrywide travel ban will be lifted during that period.
With additional reporting by Reuters.
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