Spain’s New Virus Infections Fall as Austria Eases Lockdown

Rodrigo Orihuela, Boris Groendahl and Mariajose Vera

(Bloomberg) -- Spain reported the lowest number of new coronavirus cases in more than two weeks and German infections were the fewest in six days, tentative signs that the spread of the deadly disease is slowing in Europe’s worst-hit countries.

The most recent figures from Spain, Italy, Germany and France suggest containment measures that have idled millions of workers are having an effect. While most leaders pleaded for patience, Austria became the first country in Europe to ease restrictions and Denmark may follow later.

After weeks of measures designed to limit contact between people, European governments are seeing growing evidence that shutting down much of the economy is containing the disease. Italy, Spain, France and the U.K. have suffered the most deaths worldwide, accounting for nearly 60% of all fatalities.

New infections in Spain were 4,273, the lowest since March 22, according to Health Ministry data on Monday. The death toll in Europe’s biggest outbreak rose by 637, the lowest number of daily fatalities since March 24.

German infections rose by 4,031 to surpass 100,000, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. With 140 fatalities, it was the lowest daily increase in nearly a week. The coming days will show if the trend holds. New cases and deaths in Germany have consistently dropped over weekends as regional health authorities have been slower to report figures.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff said it’s critical to reduce the number of infections before taking decisions on easing social-distancing rules. The concern is that patients require ventilation for a longer period of time than initially anticipated “because more and more older people get infected,” Helge Braun told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on Sunday.

Reports on Covid-19 related outbreaks in nursing homes and hospitals are increasing, and the number of deaths is relatively high in some of these outbreaks, Germany’s health authority said. Europe’s largest economy continues to have the third-highest number of confirmed cases in Europe.

Spain and Italy -- the epicenters of the pandemic in region -- have the highest death tolls worldwide. That means officials have to weigh any attempts to restart parts of the economy against the risk of reigniting the outbreak.

In Spain, public opinion of the government’s management of the crisis has consistently deteriorated. Just 27.7% of voters approve of the efforts by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s administration, compared with 35.1% three weeks ago, according to a GAD3 poll published Monday by Spanish newspaper ABC.

“It’s the lockdown measures that are helping us,” Silvio Brusaferro, head of Italy’s public health institute, said in Rome on Sunday. Rules designed to limit contact between people have led to a “significant slowdown in the spread,” he said.

Italy reported 525 new deaths on Sunday, the lowest daily number in more than two weeks, and new confirmed cases also declined. France reported an additional 518 deaths, the fewest since last Tuesday.

Crisis Exit

In Austria, small retailers, hardware stores and gardening shops will reopen next week after national lockdown measures succeeded in slowing the spread. The number of active coronavirus patients has declined, with recoveries outnumbering new positive tests for three consecutive days.

Despite easing restrictions, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called on Austrians to sacrifice traditional Easter holiday celebrations with friends and family this weekend and stick to social-distancing rules at least until the end of April. Should Covid-19’s spread be contained, more shops could reopen in May and schools in mid-May.

“We have reacted faster and more restrictive than other countries,” Kurz said in Vienna. “We’ll also get out of the crisis faster if everybody continues to stick to the measures.”

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen may also announce initial steps toward a return to normal life as early as Monday. Still, she’s made clear that any slight uptick in the number of cases would be followed by an instant return to tight restrictions.

Italy is heading into its fifth week under lockdown, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that he can’t say when it will be lifted.

He is expected to announce revised rules and timelines by the end of next week, Il Messaggero newspaper reported. Italy’s measures have been extended through at least April 13, and Spain’s will now be in force at least until April 25.

Italy’s new confirmed cases totaled 4,316 on Sunday, lower than the day before. Total infections rose to 128,948 cases, slightly fewer than Spain.

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