Another wave of Covid-19 infections, mostly driven by the Delta variant, is poised to sweep across Europe following its recent easing of restrictions and resumption of cross-border travels.
STOCKHOLM – Another wave of Covid-19 infections, mostly driven by the Delta variant, is poised to sweep across Europe following its recent easing of restrictions and resumption of cross-border travels.
While some countries, undaunted by the worrying signs, decided to further relax restrictions, many others again tightened sanitary measures to the disappointment of holiday-making crowds, as authorities see no other solution even though they rely heavily on tourist consumption.
Reassured by mass vaccination, fewer patients in intensive care and a dwindling number of deaths since late spring, many European countries have recently announced easing of restrictions that had been introduced to slow down the spread of Covid-19.
Such decisions are applauded by the tourism and hospitality industries, which launched a campaign called #OpenUpToEurope as the summer started.
Seeing the summer season as a golden opportunity to revitalize local economy, the European Union (EU) introduced its Digital Covid certificate on July 1, in another effort to facilitate free travels following last year’s initiative known as Re-open EU, an online platform that contains the essential information to help drive a safe relaunch of free movement and tourism across Europe.
Spain, hoping to attract 17 million foreign tourists during the summer, eased previous restrictions as its Covid-19 situation improved. Greece, highly dependent on tourism income, relaxed rules on face masks, curfews and limits on the number of visitors to beaches late last month. Sanitary restrictions have also been eased in Italy, one of the first European countries hit by the pandemic last year.
Albeit not a member of the EU, the United Kingdom (UK) has probably the most far-reaching plans for reopening. Dubbed “Freedom Day” by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, July 19 is the date when the entire country is set to open up, and restrictions on the number of people gathered in private homes and the work-from-home guidance, introduced 16 months ago, will be lifted.
On the heel of easing restrictions and reopening Europe came a resurgence of Covid-19 infections across the continent.
“Last week, the number of cases rose by 10 percent, driven by increased mixing, travel, gatherings and easing of social restrictions,” said Dr. Hans Henri P Kluge, the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Regional Director for Europe, in a statement Thursday.
The surge is largely attributed to the Delta variant, the mutation first discovered in India, which is considerably more transmissible than the Alpha variant first discovered in Britain.
“Delta overtakes Alpha very quickly through multiple and repeated introductions, and is already translating into increased hospitalizations and deaths,” Kluge said, adding that the latest development was fueled by the fact that a large proportion of Europeans has yet to be vaccinated.
Such concern is echoed by health officials in Greece.
“The Delta mutation has begun to prevail and the unvaccinated are in danger. Since last Monday we have recorded a jump in new cases, which have almost tripled. The new cases have been detected mainly in people of a young age and mainly in entertainment activities in clubs and bars, which facilitate transmission,” Nikos Hardalias, deputy minister for civil protection and crisis management, announced in a televised statement on Greek national broadcaster ERT on Tuesday.
Malta has also reported a daily increase of new infections. Last week, the number of cases went from single digit to double digits.
All of Portugal and most of Spain have turned red again on the latest update of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC)’s travel map on Thursday. Meanwhile, Cyprus has fallen into the most worrying category, marked in dark red.
The rest of the EU/European Economic Area is largely green, except for parts of the Netherlands, Ireland, some of the Greek islands, Norway and Sweden. There are, however, signs that this may soon change for the worse.
Besides the summer holidays, travels prompted by the Union of European Football Association (UEFA) European Championship have also increased transmissions. As the matches have been played in different venues across the continent, some fans visited more than one city to cheer for their teams.
Until July 3, nearly 2,500 cases had been discovered among the fans who watched the games in person, the ECDC said in a report.
“In the countries where mass gathering events such as Uefa Euro 2020 take place, in the absence of sufficient mitigation measures, the risk of local and pan-European transmission of Covid-19, including the spread of variants of concern, is expected to increase,” it said.
According to the WHO’s monitoring tool WHO Euro 2020 Explorer, the number of infections has surged in several host cities including St Petersburg in Russia, Baku in Azerbaijan, Copenhagen in Denmark, and London and Glasgow in Britain.
One typical example is Finland, where the number of newly confirmed infections nearly doubled in the last week of June. According to the Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the increase was especially noticeable among younger age groups, with over 35 percent of the new cases diagnosed among people aged 20-29.
Forty percent of the new cases were directly associated with fans who had attended the European Championship in St. Petersburg.
The ECDC recently warned that the Delta strain may account for 90 percent of all new cases in August. They also expressed fears that it may lead to a surge in both hospitalizations and deaths to reach the same magnitude as late last year.
Health professionals in Britain have the same fears as “Freedom Day” is approaching. On July 8, more than 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses slammed the plan as a “dangerous and unethical experiment” in a letter published by the medical journal the Lancet.
“Instead, the government should delay complete re-opening until everyone, including adolescents, have been offered vaccination and uptake is high, and until mitigation measures, especially adequate ventilation and spacing, are in place in schools,” wrote the health professionals.
“Until then, public health measures must include those called for by WHO (universal mask-wearing in indoor spaces, even for those vaccinated),” they noted.
The ECDC has been forecasting the latest development of the pandemic.
At the end of June, it warned that the numbers of daily cases, hospitalizations and deaths could reach the same levels as in autumn 2020, unless people strictly adhere to what it describes as “non-pharmaceutical measures” including social distancing, use of face masks and travel restrictions.
The ECDC’s assessment is partly based on the development in Portugal, where the Delta variant has become the dominant strain since late May. Sequencing data from that period showed it had accounted for more than 50 percent of the country’s total COVID-19 cases.
The ECDC has also urged acceleration of vaccination programs, saying the second dose should also be administered as early as possible to minimize the impact of the Delta variant. It has cited evidence that those who have received only the first of two doses are less protected against the Delta variant than against other variants. This has been observed regardless of the vaccine type.
“It is very likely that the Delta variant will circulate extensively during the summer, particularly among younger individuals that are not targeted for vaccination,” ECDC Director Andrea Ammon said in a statement last month, when the ECDC published a threat assessment brief on the potential public health implications of the spread of the Delta variant
“This could cause a risk for the more vulnerable individuals to be infected and experience severe illness and death, if they are not fully vaccinated,” Ammon added.
Data from WHO Europe show that 63 percent of Europeans are still waiting to get their first dose of the vaccine.
“We see many countries doing well, but the truth is that the average vaccine coverage in the Region is 24 percent only, and more serious, half of our elders and 40 percent of our healthcare workers are still unprotected,” Kluge said, reiterating the ECDC warning.
RESTRICTIONS BACK IN PLACE
Facing an apparently worsening situation caused by the Delta variant, some European countries have once again tightened restrictions.
One such example is Greece, where authorities on Tuesday announced the reintroduction of restrictions on entertainment after a recent spike in new Covid-19 infections.
As of Thursday, all restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs will be serving strictly seated customers, Hardalias announced in a televised statement on ERT. Violators would face heavy fines, he warned.
On July 5, Norway announced that its plan to fully reopen the society would be delayed, due to concerns that the Delta variant may cause another wave of Covid-19 infections, especially among those who have not yet been vaccinated.
Spain’s Catalonia region said on July 6 that it would introduce new restrictions as from July 9, such as the closure of nightclubs. The regional authorities also called on the central government to once again make face masks mandatory in public spaces.
Measures such as delaying the lifting of restrictions or reintroducing them are welcomed by WHO.
“Covid-19’s trajectory in the coming weeks and months – whether we are to see a resurgence, whether schools are able to open their doors for our children – depends on the decisions and actions that we, as individuals, communities and governments, take now and in the weeks ahead,” Kluge said in a statement last week.
“I am not here to cold shower any Euro 2020 fans or anyone’s holidays, but before we watch our players, and before we all pack and go for some well-deserved rest near home or far away, it is my imperative to give three messages,” he added.
“If you decide to travel and gather, assess the risks and do it safely, keeping all life-saving reflexes of masks and self-protection, especially indoors and in crowds. Take the jab, don’t think twice, take it; for you and for others. And, bring the vaccines to our most vulnerable ones first,” he stressed.