The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Second wave of covid-19 in Europe leads to new restrictions but no national lockdowns

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced a new three-tiered system for triggering localized restrictions based on the severity of coronavirus spread in those locations. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

LONDON — England has seen new coronavirus cases quadruple in the past three weeks and now has more covid-19 patients hospitalized than before the government imposed a lockdown in March, health authorities said Monday, laying the groundwork for a fresh package of restrictions.

But, like much of Europe, Britain is now pursuing targeted local restrictions — such as closing pubs in Liverpool, England — while doing everything it can to avoid another national lockdown and closure of schools.

In a statement to Parliament, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was trying to take a balanced approach between the extremes of “shuttering our lives and our economy” and abandoning the fight.

“We don’t want to go back to another national lockdown,” he said, but “we can’t let the virus rip.”

Johnson announced a three-tier alert system, under which areas of highest concern — now including Liverpool — will see pubs and bars close and almost all mixing of households banned, though schools will remain open. In areas that fall in the middle tier, people won’t be allowed to meet indoors with others who are not part of their households. And the lowest tier will have to abide by measures already in place, with pubs closing at 10 p.m. and gatherings limited to six people.

“These figures are flashing at us like dashboard warnings in a passenger jet and we must act now,” Johnson added in an evening news conference.

Countries across Europe are similarly looking for compromises as they scramble to contain a resurgence in infections and hospital admissions. Even still, they face more anger and frustration from businesses and individuals than they did in the spring.

Ravi Gupta, a microbiologist at the University of Cambridge, said that in Britain and other European countries, “a full lockdown is off the political agenda,” in part because the “fear factor” around the novel coronavirus is not what it was in the spring.

While full lockdowns are best for limiting deaths and transmissions, he said, “it’s clear that people can’t endure long-term restrictions outside of authoritarian regimes.”

France hinted it might impose further restrictions after a leap in cases and hospitalizations. On Saturday, authorities reported 27,000 new cases in the previous 24 hours — a record. And on Monday, health officials said the number of people hospitalized for covid-19 had surpassed 8,600 for the first time since late June.

“If over the next two weeks we see the indicators worsen, if intensive care beds fill up even more than we expect, we will indeed take additional measures,” Prime Minister Jean Castex said, urging people to limit gatherings in homes.

The French government has avoided imposing a second nationwide lockdown, but it has issued new restrictions — notably on restaurant capacity and alcohol sale times — in major urban areas.

French President Emmanuel Macron is due to address the nation Wednesday night.

In Spain, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez invoked emergency powers on Friday to prevent travel in and out of Madrid, overruling the Conservative local government, which had favored neighborhood-level lockdowns.

Opposition to the move was evident during Spain’s National Day celebrations Monday. People gathered outside an event at the Royal Palace to boo Sánchez’s government, and the far-right Vox party led a car caravan to protest “the criminal and totalitarian government.”

The Madrid region has reported more than 20,000 new coronavirus cases over the past seven days, making it one of the worst-hit areas of Europe’s second wave.

In Belgium, the diagnosed cases last week were 89 percent higher than the previous week. A spokesman for the national coronavirus response, Yves Van Laethem, warned Monday that if current trends aren’t halted, the number of people in intensive care units at the end of October could rival the heights seen in March and April.

“All indicators continue to increase alarmingly,” Van Laethem told reporters.

Germany on Monday added Munich to a growing list of coronavirus “red” zones, which triggers new restrictions. As of Wednesday, Munich’s bars and restaurants will be required to stop serving alcohol after 10 p.m. Mask-wearing will be mandatory for pedestrians, and no more than two households, or up to five people, are allowed to meet in groups. Private indoor events are capped at 25 attendees, and outdoor events at 50. The rules will stay in effect for at least two weeks, until Oct. 27.

In Italy, the number of daily cases has not reached the number seen in some other Western European countries, but the trajectory is nonetheless worrying. And unlike in the springtime, when the outbreak mainly struck the country’s richer north, it is now reaching into southern regions with frailer economies and hospital systems.

Italy last week issued a nationwide mandate that masks be worn outdoors as well as indoors, and so far most seem to be adhering to the measures. The government is now considering new steps that would include a ban on private parties and a cap on the number of guests at weddings and funerals, according to Reuters, citing a draft of a decree.

On Monday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte ruled out another national lockdown but said localized lockdowns could be used if necessary.

In England, as elsewhere, there has been pushback from the hard-hit hospitality industry. Many are concerned that businesses may not survive the newest wave of restrictions.

Nicola Storey, who runs the Mustard Pot pub in Leeds, said that one of the most frustrating things was that there was no end in sight. She said that her pub already got into “thousands and thousands of pounds of debt” during the full lockdown in Britain, and she’s worried there’s more economic turmoil to come. “It feels like we don’t have a solution to the end point, so it’s just more restrictions, but for how long? It seems like there’s no plan to get out of this.”

Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said he was “deeply skeptical” that Johnson had a strategy to handle the crisis. He noted that Johnson’s “whack-a-mole” strategy, which focused on local outbreaks, hasn’t brought numbers down. “Twenty areas have now been in restrictions for over two months, 19 have seen their infection rates rise, some by very large amounts,” Starmer said.

In the United States, President Trump pointed to rising cases in Europe to defend his record.

“Big spike in the China Plague in Europe and other places that the Fake News used to hold up as examples of places that are doing well, in order to make the U.S look bad,” the president tweeted, a week after his hospitalization for covid-19. “Be strong and vigilant, it will run its course. Vaccines and cures are coming fast!”

Chico Harlan in Rome, Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia, James McAuley in Paris and Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.