Europe is losing fight to stay open on record virus surge

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Health worker Emilie Neumann helps a 79-year-old resident to attend an online video call with his relatives in France.
Health worker Emilie Neumann helps a 79-year-old resident to attend an online video call with his relatives in France.
REUTERS/Christian Hartmann TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
  • The latest figures from Germany, France, Italy and Ireland show records in infections, while Spain had the most new cases since April.
  • Leaders have less leverage to fight now, having burned political capital to shut down.
  • Even if restrictions don’t have a huge direct impact on economic activity, the associated fear factor could hurt spending.


European leaders from London to Berlin face an alarming reality: lockdowns are creeping back on the agenda as the pandemic threatens the continent again.

It's a scenario many ruled out after the summer, when coronavirus cases were receding across Europe and borders were re-opening. A resurgence was expected, but the conviction was that a targeted approach would do.

That early sense of victory has given way to disappointment, and set the stage for a deeper crisis with major cities under curfew and central governments openly clashing with local officials on the way forward.

"The hope was that the second wave would be easier to control because we know how to identify and contain clusters and keep the economy running," said Christian Odendahl, chief economist at the Centre for European Reform. "But that has not worked in Europe."

The latest figures from Germany, France, Italy and Ireland show records in infections, while Spain had the most new cases since April. Hospitalization and death rates have ticked up across the region.

"This is a great challenge for all heads of government in the European Union," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said late on Thursday after agreeing with the bloc's other leaders to exchange information more regularly. "The question of how we get out of this pandemic will determine the health of many people. It will decide how many people have to die, and also determine our economic performance."

Leaders have less leverage to fight now, having burned political capital to shut down and then prop up economies when the pandemic erupted in the spring.

Businesses are more wobbly, the public is fed up with a dizzying array of "lockdown lite" restrictions, and political opposition is no longer sitting back.

Spain's Socialist government is battling with center-right authorities in Madrid, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is beset on all sides. His handling of the pandemic is costing him support in northern England, where he made rare gains in last year's election. Now, it's among the most affected regions in the U.K.

Even a Two-Week U.K. Lockdown May Not Be Enough, Officials Fear

Even Merkel -- Europe's queen of crises -- failed to prod Germany's state leaders to accept tougher measures during an eight-hour negotiating marathon this week.

 There's an ideological fight at play too between libertarians who don't want to restrict movement and those who say safety should trump all other concerns, including the economy.

For Jamie Rush of Bloomberg Economics, "doing too little to contain the spread could easily end up costing more than a short national lockdown."

All this casts doubt about any rebound from the region's worst recession in living memory. It will force governments to increase spending, further squeezing public finances. Central banks, which have deployed unprecedented stimulus, are gearing up to do more.

Europe's initial strategy was a shock treatment that suspended personal liberties to get back to some type of normal as soon as possible. It seemed to be working. Job losses had been kept in check, thanks to generous stimulus packages.

But authorities, despite bulking up on testing, failed to enforce hygiene restrictions or self-isolation rules after lifting lockdowns.

Over the summer, people traveled and brought the virus back home. The spread has accelerated as cooler weather forces people indoors, setting the stage for a winter of toil.

Starting this weekend, Londoners will be banned from mixing with other households, and residents of Paris and other major French cities will be confined to their homes at night for four weeks.

"What we absolutely must avoid is another general lockdown, which would have a considerable social and psychological impact and an intolerable effect on the French economy," Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Friday on BFM TV.

No Man's Land

Even if restrictions don’t have a huge direct impact on economic activity, the associated fear factor could hurt spending.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, the industry body for a wide range of leisure businesses, described the situation as being "trapped in a no man's land of being open, but with severe restrictions that will significantly hit customers."

The rise in cases has also alarmed scientists pressing for more stringent policies. In the UK, public-health experts have called for a "circuit-breaker" - a quick-fire shutdown of businesses and social contact to coincide with a school break. Even there, the concern is that it's too late to make an impact.

Meanwhile, various attempts to control the virus are breaking down, with testing and tracking systems in danger of becoming overwhelmed.

Further complicating efforts to rally people is the fact that there's no end in sight. A vaccine won’t likely be widely available before well into 2021, and public unrest is flickering.

In the southern Italian town of Arzano, a lockdown that closed all shops except those selling the essentials prompted several dozen shopkeepers to block a main road, joining other protests across the region.

Any leader observing how compliance is breaking down has to wonder what tools, if any, they have left.

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