A nurse tends a hospital patient
In two weeks the number of recorded new cases of Covid-19 in France has risen 55% to about 38,000 a day © Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty

More than a year after the start of the pandemic, Europe is enduring a grim spring. Covid-19 infections, hospitalisations and deaths are rising in many countries as the continent grapples with a more infectious variant, a shortage of vaccines and public weariness with lockdowns.

In France “the epidemic is spreading fast, and it’s spreading everywhere,” prime minister Jean Castex told parliament on Thursday after President Emmanuel Macron announced the country’s third nationwide lockdown, which includes travel restrictions and school closures and extends a 7pm-6am curfew.

In two weeks, Castex said, the number of recorded new cases in France had risen 55 per cent to about 38,000 a day. This two-week growth compares with a rise of 95 per cent in Belgium and 48 per cent in the Netherlands in a similar timeframe; in Germany, they have risen 75 per cent. Part of this increase reflects an expansion in testing.

The latest pandemic surge in Europe, triggered by the spread of the now dominant B.1.1.7 strain of the virus first noted in England, is often called a “third wave”, but observed across the continent as a whole it is more like a confused sea in which some national epidemics are worsening, some are reaching their peak and others are declining. 

In Germany, the EU’s most populous nation, “since mid-March about 1,000 more ICU patients have landed in hospital,” said Christian Karagiannidis of the country’s Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine. If things continue at this rate, he said, “we will have reached the limits of our regular capacity in less than four weeks”.

With older people prioritised for vaccines, it is no longer only the aged who are fighting for their lives in intensive care units across Europe. “Now it’s middle-aged and also younger patients who must be ventilated,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a podcast on Friday.

Charts showing that outbreaks are growing again as much of Europe battles its third wave. ICU occupancy is rising in countries including Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Poland, and is at a record high in Poland and Hungary

In Spain and Italy, the situation is also deteriorating. “With the English variant, despite all the restrictions in place, we have not had the drop in new cases that we had hoped for,” said Giovanni Leoni, vice-president of the Italian doctors’ federation.

Eastern Europe is also hard hit. In Poland, the third wave of the pandemic has been the worst so far, driving daily infections to record levels and putting intense strain on the country’s health system. There are now more people on ventilators and in hospital with Covid-19 in Poland than at any time since the pandemic began in China last year.

“These are the worst days of the pandemic that we are going through,” Poland’s health minister Adam Niedzielski said in a television interview last week. In the Czech Republic, cases have started to fall after the government launched a strict lockdown in the wake of a late February surge. Cases in Slovakia have also peaked.

The variant first detected in the UK is now spreading rapidly across Europe

A slow rollout of vaccines has constrained the ability of the 27 member states — which carried out joint procurement of the jabs — to control the pandemic. This is in sharp contrast to the rapid rollout in Israel, the UK and the US. “We have over 200,000 doctors ready to vaccinate citizens, but the lack of jabs is slowing everything down. By now we should have been way ahead, but we are still completely bogged down,” Leoni said.

Supplies should improve rapidly in the next few weeks. Vaccine deliveries are forecast to jump from 107m doses in the first quarter to 360m in the second, according to the European Commission. The differential is even wider than it appears because 55m of the second-quarter jabs are the single-shot Johnson & Johnson drug. The other three approved vaccines use two doses per patient. This should mean the EU has sufficient jabs to hit its target to inoculate 70 per cent of its adult population — or about 255m people — by September.

“Member states need to be ready for an acceleration in the delivery,” an EU official said. “The logistics must follow, and this is their responsibility. They must start now organising mass vaccination and vocal campaigns to convince citizens to go to get a vaccine.”

The global tussle for vaccines has added to tensions between the UK and the EU, and caused ructions among bloc members over allocations.

Medical worker administers a jab in Hungary
A medical worker administers a jab in Hungary, which has the highest death rate per capita in the EU, but tops the charts for vaccinations © Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

Hungary — which has recently been suffering the most deaths per capita in the EU and has one of the world’s highest Covid-19 fatality rates — is near the top of the charts for vaccinations out of the 27, with more than 20 per cent of people having received at least one jab. This compares with 12.5 per cent across the EU. That was because Hungary did not wait for European Medical Agency jab approvals and imported two Chinese and one Russian vaccine to supplement its supplies.

As they wait for vaccines, Europe’s governments are struggling to persuade their citizens to accept further stringent lockdowns a year into the pandemic. Germany “urgently need[s] a hard lockdown for two weeks, mandatory tests in schools twice a week and a much faster pace of vaccinations in the centres and GP practices,” Karagiannidis said.

Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, criticised the arguments of European leaders such as Macron in France who have said that they need to avoid excessively onerous lockdowns to save their economies. 

Countries such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, Flahault said, had imposed aggressive suppression strategies for health reasons “and they have economic outcomes that are much better than the EU’s” because they have returned more quickly to normal life after halting the spread of the disease. 

Yet it is probably too late to impose total lockdowns again in Europe, said Martin Blachier, an epidemiologist at Paris-based Public Health Expertise, a consultancy. “The German and French governments just realise it’s impossible to lock down the country. People are going crazy so they don’t want to stay at home.”

Until more vaccines arrive, Europe is reliant on social distancing and test and trace systems. For now, said Blachier, “lockdowns are not a solution any more, and the vaccines are insufficient”.

By Victor Mallet in Paris, John Burn-Murdoch in London, Guy Chazan in Berlin, Michael Peel in Brussels, Davide Ghiglione in Rome, Valerie Hopkins in Budapest, James Shotter in Warsaw and Ian Mount in Madrid

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