Govts extend lockdowns amid easing signs

Claudia Cristoferi and Sabine Siebold
·4-min read

Governments across Europe have announced tighter and longer coronavirus lockdowns over fears about a fast-spreading variant while authorities in the UK and Poland say there are early signs infection numbers are stabilising.

Italy will extend its COVID-19 state of emergency to the end of April, Health Minister Roberto Speranza said as infections currently show no sign of abating.

Germany is likely to have to extend COVID-19 curbs into February, Health Minister Jens Spahn said, stressing the need to further reduce contacts to fend off the more infectious variant first identified in the UK.

The German cabinet approved stricter entry controls to require people arriving from countries with high caseloads or where the more virulent variant is circulating to take a coronavirus test.

Chancellor Angela Merkel told a meeting of lawmakers on Tuesday that the coming eight to 10 weeks would be very hard if the more infectious variant spread to Germany, according to a participant at the meeting.

Spahn told Deutschlandfunk radio it would take another two or three months before the vaccination campaign really started to help.

The Dutch government said late on Tuesday it would extend lockdown measures, including the closure of schools and shops, by at least three weeks until February 9.

"This decision does not come as a surprise, but it is an incredible disappointment," Prime Minister Mark Rutte told a news conference, adding that the threat posed by the new variant was "very, very worrying".

In France, President Emmanuel Macron met with senior ministers to discuss possible new measures.

A curfew could be brought forward to 6pm from 8pm as has already happened in some parts of the country, French media reported.

There is no need to close schools but new restrictions are needed in light of the variant first detected in the UK, the government's top scientific advisor said, adding that if vaccines were more widely accepted the crisis could be over by September.

Restrictions introduced in Denmark need to be extended, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told parliament on Wednesday.

"I consider that an extension of the restrictions is necessary, not least to ensure that the British variant does not undermine Denmark's control of the epidemic," she said.

In Switzerland, officials in Bern cancelled the Lauberhorn World Cup downhill race out of fear that the new variant - brought in by what health authorities said was a single UK tourist - was spreading now spreading rapidly among locals.

At least 60 people have tested positive in the Alpine resort of Wengen in the last four weeks.

The Swiss government is expected to announce on Wednesday it will extend its lockdown restrictions by five weeks to the end of February, including closing all restaurants, cultural and recreational sites.

Elsewhere, Mexico posted another high for its daily increase in coronavirus cases, with 14,395 newly confirmed infections and a near-record of 1314 more deaths.

The country has now topped 1.55 million total infections and has registered 135,682 deaths so far in the pandemic.

Japan expanded a coronavirus state of emergency to seven more prefectures on Wednesday, affecting more than half the population amid a surge in infections across the country.

Prime Minister Yoshide Suga also said Japan will suspend fast-track entry exceptions for business visitors or others with residency permits, fully banning foreign visitors while the state of emergency is in place.

In China, millions of people lined in freezing temperatures on Wednesday to receive a second round of coronavirus tests in a city south of Beijing that is at the heart of a new outbreak.

The National Health Commission said another 90 confirmed cases have been reported in Hebei province, whose capital Shijiazhuang has accounted for the vast majority of recent cases.

Another 16 cases were reported in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang and one in the northern province of Shanxi.

There was more optimistic news from Poland, where COVID-19 case numbers have stabilised after surging in the autumn.

"I hope that in two to three weeks the restrictions will be a little smaller, the vaccine will work," Poland's Finance Minister Tadeusz Koscinski said in an interview for Money.pl.

"Some restrictions will remain for quite a long time, but I think that 80 per cent of these restrictions will start to disappear at the turn of the first and second quarter," he said.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday tougher restrictions brought in last week were starting to have an effect on the spread of the virus in some parts of the country, cautioning that it was still early days.

"What we are now seeing, and it's very, very important to stress that these are early days, we are now seeing the beginnings of some signs that that is starting to have an effect in many parts of the country, but by no means everywhere and it is early days," he told parliament.