Europe is looking at several more weeks of virus lockdowns
Italy and Spain are preparing for several more weeks under lockdown as volatile coronavirus infection rates prevent Europe's governments from easing curbs on public life.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose country has reported the most virus-linked deaths worldwide, is leaning toward an extension to early May, though a small number of businesses may be allowed to reopen. Spain prolonged a state of emergency until April 25 and the U.K. also is likely to extend restrictions.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined Spain and Italy on Thursday in upholding curbs on people's movement and face-to-face contacts, saying progress in defeating the pandemic is "fragile" and it's too early to relent. In a plea echoed elsewhere in Europe, she called on Germans to abide by the measures over the long Easter weekend.
"We must stay focused," she said after a cabinet meeting.
As the pandemic maintains its grip on Europe, policy makers are caught between the urgent need to restart battered economies and calls by health officials to maintain lockdowns. Political uncertainty in the U.K. eased after Prime Minister Boris Johnson was released from intensive care, though he remained hospitalized to recover from a coronavirus infection.
Merkel's cautious words echo the approach in other European countries faced with major outbreaks. Italy reported a rise in deaths and infections, while France's death toll increased with a backlog of data from nursing homes. U.K. deaths, though lower than in Europe's worst-hit countries, rose by 881 to almost 8,000.
"We're not done yet, we must keep going," Foreign Minister Dominic Raab, who is deputizing for Johnson, said in London. "Deaths are still rising, and we still haven't seen the peak of the virus."
Italy's containment measures run until Monday. Conte is inclined to keep those restrictions fundamentally unchanged, according to three trade union and business representatives who met with him on Thursday. The Italian premier is expected to announce an extension as early as Friday, according to two officials.
Any slight easing will be gradual and on a regional basis, according to the officials, who asked not to be identified by name in line with policy. Businesses that could be allowed to open include bookshops and stationary stores, agricultural machinery makers, forestry companies and perhaps sellers of baby clothes, according to newspaper Corriere della Sera.
With expanded testing under way, Italy recorded Thursday a second straight increase in the number of daily new coronavirus cases, counting 4,204 confirmed infections compared with 3,836 on Wednesday. Another 610 patients died, bringing the death toll to 18,279, according to civil protection authorities.
Infections in Spain rose to more than 157,000 and deaths surpassed 15,800 on Friday, underscoring the severity of Europe's most-extensive outbreak, even as daily fatalities slowed to the lowest since March 24.
Spanish lawmakers extended a national state of emergency for a second time on Thursday as the opposition People's Party joined Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's coalition government in supporting the measure. His government's poll ratings have declined as the virus ravaged Spain's health system.
France reported 1,341 new deaths from the coronavirus on Thursday after including two days of data from nursing homes, while the number of intensive-care patients declined for the first time since the outbreak began.
"So we can hope for a leveling off, but it's a very high leveling off," Jerome Salomon, head France's public health agency, said at a briefing. "It remains to be confirmed in the days ahead."
New cases in Germany climbed the most in five days, according to figures Thursday from Johns Hopkins University. Merkel and the premiers of Germany's 16 states plan to meet on Wednesday to consider the next steps.
"I would really love to be the first one to say to you that everything is how it was and we can get things going again," Merkel said Thursday. "But that's not the case. My job right now is to say what is happening now."