European leaders are confronting a deepening health and economic crisis as sharp increases in coronavirus infections strain hospital capacities and trigger new restrictions across the continent.
The continent’s struggles come as new Covid-19 infections worldwide hit a new record of half a million new cases in a single day this week, driven by soaring transmission in the northern hemisphere.
“It is enough to say that it is very serious,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said after the EU’s national leaders met over video conference on Thursday evening to discuss how to co-ordinate and whether patients could be moved across borders to ease pressure on the hardest-hit member states.
“Numbers of cases are rising. Numbers of hospitalisation are rising. Numbers of deaths are rising,” she said. “The spread of the virus will overwhelm our health systems if we do not act urgently.”
The dramatic rise in infections and surge of admissions to hospitals, which even Europe’s more ample and well-equipped healthcare systems are struggling to cope with, has forced a policy U-turn in governments that had been deeply reluctant to reimpose the kind of restrictions seen in spring.
Across Europe, national leaders are ordering higher-risk businesses to close and issuing stay-at-home orders to citizens to try to curb the spread, while the European institutions have swung from encouraging travel in a bid to boost economies to advising against all non-essential crossing of borders.
“Unnecessary travel is of course inappropriate in the situation we are in. It should be reduced to really necessary essential travel,” Ms von der Leyen said. “What we’ve seen and what we’ve learned is that after the decrease of the first wave during summer, we obviously have relaxed some measures too quickly.”
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council who chairs discussions between the national leaders in a bid to forge consensus, said it was a mistake to think that economies could go back to normal without controlling the virus.
“We shouldn’t make the mistake of pitting healthcare against the economy,” Michel said. “The best way to support the economy and society and to succeed in the weeks and months to come in keeping the virus under control. Only then can we relaunch economic activity in a way that benefits citizens.”
The World Health Organization’s emergency committee met to discuss the pandemic and draw up new guidelines for governments.
“The total number of confirmed cases has moved from 7 to 9 million in just 14 days, and, today, Europe exceeded the 10-million-case milestone,” Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe told an emergency meeting of European health ministers.
But he added that modelling shows that if face masks are worn universally, at a rate of 95 per cent, it would save up to 266,000 lives by February across the 53 European member states of the WHO.