The threat posed by spread of new coronavirus variants in Europe

Fresh lockdown measures imposed across continent as mutant Covid strains cause spike in infections

Medical staff treat a Covid patient in Rome, Italy
Medical staff treat Covid patient in Italian capital Rome
(Image credit: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

Angela Merkel is warning that Germany has been plunged into a “new pandemic” as coronavirus variants spreading across the country trigger a rapid rise in infections.

The German chancellor has joined a host of other European leaders in announcing an extension of lockdown measures as the continent struggles to contain new Covid strains.

France has introduced a partial lockdown on 16 regions, including the greater Paris area, while Italy has tightened restrictions until at least Easter, amid a stumbling continent-wide vaccination rollout that threatens to undermine the UK’s successful jab campaign.

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New enemies

Britain’s health authorities are especially worried about the South African variant that has begun appearing across Europe. This is “the variant we really want to keep out of the UK”, says Neil Ferguson, vice-dean of Imperial College London’s School of Public Health.

Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week that the South African strain now accounts for 5% to 10% of infections in some European nations. So “when infection levels go up in France to 30,000 cases a day, that implies there’s at least 1,500 to 2,000 of the South African variant”, he added.

However, the most dominant strain across Europe is that first discovered in Kent in September. Since then, the Kent variant has spread to at least 27 other European countries and now accounts for the majority of cases in Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

As governments battle the growing threat posed by the various new Covid strains, Merkel has warned that “case numbers are rising exponentially and intensive care beds are filling up again” across Germany.

And with neighbouring nations facing similar crises, the UK authorities fear that a third wave of the virus could, as Boris Johnson has warned, “wash up on our shores”.

Damage limitation

Cases in Germany have surged to more than 13,000 a day on a rolling seven-day average, while France’s equivalent average has surpassed 30,000, up from 10,000 in December.

The same theme is playing out across Europe, with Italy reporting more than 22,000 daily new cases; the Netherlands’ seven-day average nearly doubling to about 6,400 from just over 3,000 in January; and Poland reporting a case rate to about 21,000 a day from around 5,000 in early February.

EU leaders are due to discuss the state of play across the bloc at a virtual meeting tomorrow, but many member states are already taking matters into their own hands.

Merkel today reversed plans for a strict national lockdown over Easter after agreeing to the “circuit breaker” rules during talks between leaders of Germany’s 16 federal states and the chancellor that lasted “until the early hours of the morning” on Tuesday, Deutsche Welle reports.

However, the country’s second-biggest city Hamburg went back into full lockdown last week, while Cologne also announced a tightening of restrictions on Friday.

France has locked down around a third of its population, while the Italian authorities have put more than half of their country - including Milan and Rome - under tougher regulations that will see bars, restaurants and schools closed.

In Greece - which has seen case rates rise to about 2,400 from 450 in late January - the government “has requisitioned private-sector doctors from certain specialties in and around Athens to help fight the latest surge in infections”, The Guardian reports.

Meanwhile, Poland has closed most public venues for at least three weeks, with Health Minister Adam Niedzielski last week claiming that soaring infection rates were largely due to “the British mutation”.

On our doorstep

The UK authorities are increasingly worried that “any spread in cases from Europe could bring the South Africa variant with it”, writes ITV’s health editor Emily Morgan. A “very senior scientific government advisor said on Friday that is the one variant most likely to have some resistance to the vaccine so it could cause problems, even amongst the vaccinated population”, she reports.

The growing fears about the spread of new variants in Europe is believed to be behind the strong language used by ministers this week to dissuade Brits from booking holidays abroad this summer.

As the row with the EU over vaccine doses escalates, the UK is “in a very precarious position”, Morgan says, and despite the success of the country’s jabs rollout, “it wouldn’t take much for things to start going the wrong way again”.

“No one wants more lockdowns and more cases and that is we why we have to be very aware of what is happening on the Continent,” she concludes.

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