France has extended its coronavirus lockdown, while Germany has started to demand negative tests from French visitors before allowing them to cross the border as a third wave of Covid-19 infections ‘could be the worst so far’ in Europe.
On Friday, France reported 41,869 new COVID-19 cases after registering 45,641 on Thursday and 35,088 a week ago, putting the hospital system under severe strain.
The number of people in intensive care units with COVID-19 rose by 57 to a 2021 high of 4,766, health ministry data showed.
Responding to the rising numbers across the border, Germany has declared all of France, including its overseas territories, as a ‘high incidence area’ for the coronavirus.
The decision on Friday by Germany’s disease control agency means people travelling from France must provide a negative test result before crossing into Germany.
Germany’s health body – The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) – also added neighbouring Denmark to its list of ‘risk areas,’ requiring 10-day quarantine after arrival in Germany, as the country also struggles with the third wave.
‘There are clear signals that this wave will be worse than the first two waves,’ RKI’s Lothar Wieler said, as he urged people to stay at home over Easter. ‘We have some very difficult weeks ahead of us.’
Clement Beaune, France’s junior minister for European affairs, assured citizens that Germany won’t fully close the border, saying in a statement that there would also be exemptions for those who live close to it on the French side.
He added that French-German consultations are on-going ‘in the hope that these restrictions will apply for the shortest possible time.’
Meanwhile, Germany’s health officials are urging people to stay home during the upcoming Easter break to help slow the rapidly rising numbers of new infections, that have been blamed largely on the virus variant first found in the UK.
Health Minister Jens Spahn says if infections continue unchecked, Germany’s health system could be stretched to its limit in April.
‘If this continues unchecked, we will face the danger that our health care system will reach capacity during the month of April,’ Spahn said.
On the decision to require tests from French arrivals, Spahn said: ‘This is a precautionary measure to prevent the virus to spread because of holiday trips.’
The head of the RKI said Germany is just at the ‘beginning of the third wave’ of the pandemic. Covid-19 cases increased by 20,472 to 2,755,225, data from the institute showed on Saturday. The reported death toll rose by 157 to 75,780, the tally showed.
On Friday, Germany reported 21,573 new cases, compared to 17,482 a week earlier.
The number of new weekly infections per 100,000 people was 119 on Friday, compared to 70 two weeks ago, Spahn said.
He said more than 10 percent of Germans had received at least a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in a slow rollout of vaccines in Europe.
Germany was in the final stages of the ‘pandemic marathon’, but the country’s health system could reach its limit in April, Spahn warned.
The French government announced increased police checks on Friday to enforce travel restrictions in place in Paris and several other regions as coronavirus cases continue to soar around the country.
Checks at train stations, airports and motorway toll booths will ‘increase from today’, the prime minister’s office said, describing the situation as ‘critical’ with the arrival of a third wave of infections.
The move came after France placed three more departments in limited lockdown, with around 20 million people, including those in the Paris region, prohibited from travelling further than six miles from home except for essential reasons.
There is also a nightly curfew in place nationwide starting at 7:00 pm.
French President Emmanuel Macron has come under fire for going against the advice of scientific experts and his health minister at the end of January, when he decided not to impose a national lockdown.
‘These coming weeks will be difficult. We’ll take effective measures at the right time and to my mind there are no taboos,’ Macron said late Thursday.
‘I have no mea culpa to issue, no regrets and no sense of a failure,’ he added, defending his decision to keep a state of semi-openness at the end of January.
Daily cases in France have nearly doubled since the start of the month, reaching over 45,000 on Thursday, with the number of people in intensive care now nearly the same level as during the second wave in November.
In Paris, the pressure on hospitals is even greater, with the bulk of non-essential surgeries being cancelled to free up beds amid the rapid spread of the more contagious British variant, which now causes the majority of infections nationwide.
Nearly one in every 170 people is currently infected in the capital region, official data shows.
Schools across the country remain open, though individual classes in high-risk departments will now close if just one student tests positive, instead of three previously.
‘That will necessarily mean more class closures in the coming days,’ Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said Friday, calling outright school shutdowns to slow the virus a ‘last resort.’
The number of new coronavirus cases in children under 15 has accelerated sharply over the past week, the Sante Publique France health authority said Friday.
‘The British variant… is not more contagious for children, but it is as contagious for children as for adults,’ the agency’s respiratory infections chief Daniel Levy-Bruhl said.
Prime Minister Jean Castex has called France’s efforts to avoid a painful nationwide lockdown a ‘third way’ in its Covid fight, but many medical experts consider the restrictions not tough enough.
‘I understand the strategy of wanting to do gradual measures, but with the situation we are in I’m not sure that they are going to slow down the epidemic,’ Solen Kerneis, an infectious diseases specialist at the Bichat hospital in northern Paris, told AFP.
France’s vaccination campaign has also been sluggish amid a chronic shortage of doses, with only around 10 percent of the population having received at least one dose.
The top health watchdog recommended offering the jabs to dentists and vets on Friday in a modest widening of the eligibility criteria, with the focus until now on vaccinating the over-75s, medical personnel and those with existing health problems.
Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Friday the government would take action against healthcare workers who refuse to be vaccinated against coronavirus, following new reports of infections in hospitals.
‘The government intends to intervene,’ Draghi told a news conference. ‘It’s absolutely not good that unvaccinated workers are in contact with sick people.’
The prime minister said Justice Minister Marta Cartabia was preparing regulation, likely a decree, but the details had not yet been determined.
On Thursday, Liguria region president Giovanni Toti called for a national law after at least 12 people were infected with coronavirus at two hospitals in the area due to two unvaccinated health workers.
‘In light of the need to protect citizens at a fragile time, such as hospitalisation, there may be the legal conditions, and also political, for a measure,’ Toti said.
‘It’s clear that we need a national law, because we risk chaos in our hospitals in a few weeks,’ he added, calling for a ‘clear regulatory framework’.
Italy has a small but significant ‘anti-vaxx’ movement and some experts fear their numbers may swell following safety fears over the AstraZeneca coronavirus jab.
The use of the vaccine was suspended last week across several EU countries before the bloc’s regulator declared it safe.
How many health workers in Italy have opted not to be vaccinated is unknown, although vaccination is not mandatory.
Health Minister Roberto Speranza said on Friday, however, it amounted to a ‘very minimal’ number of people.
In his news conference, the 73-year-old Draghi confirmed he was in line to get jabbed with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
‘I hope next week, I made a booking,’ he said.
Italy was the first European country to be hit by the coronavirus pandemic 13 months ago and has recorded more than 105,000 deaths.
However, it has struggled with its vaccination campaign, as logistical and organisational gremlins added to EU-wide supply shortages.
Italy is particularly lagging behind on vaccinations for the elderly, despite them being at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.
The country has administered 8.7 million doses and fully vaccinated just under 2.8 million people – less than five percent of the total population of 60 million.
For people aged 80 and above, full vaccination rates range from 41.2 percent in South Tyrol to 6.2 percent in Sardinia, according to the GIMBE health think tank.
Draghi also commented on missing vaccine deliveries from AstraZeneca, and on rival claims over them from Britain and the EU.
London and Brussels should reach a settlement ‘rather fast’, because ‘neither … wants to fight in court for I don’t know how many years, 10 or 20’, he said.
Last week, Italian police found 29 million AstraZeneca doses in a factory south of Rome, raising suspicions about their final destination.
AstraZeneca denied media reports that they were destined for Britain, insisting that they were set to be delivered to the EU and the developing world.
With vaccine deliveries falling short in Italy, some regional politicians have called for authorities to also use Russia’s Sputnik jab.
But Draghi sounded sceptical, as he noted that the European Medicines Agency was still studying its safety and effectiveness.
It will not be completed ‘before three or four months’, so ‘if things go well, the [Russian] vaccine will not be available before the second half of the year’, he said.
In sighs that Europe is taking steps in the right direction for its vaccination rollout, the European Medicines Agency has approved new manufacturing sites for coronavirus vaccines made by Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.
The move could significantly boost Europe’s supply of the shots.
In a statement published on Friday, the EU medicines regulator says it had approved sites in the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland for vaccines made by the companies.
The new approvals come amid the 27-nation bloc’s struggles to ramp up COVID-19 vaccination and repeated delivery delays and manufacturing problems.
In addition, the EMA says it was granting ‘more flexible storage conditions’ to the Pfizer vaccine – which was cleared on the basis that it needed ultra-cold freezer temperatures for storage and delivery.
Britain is also close to striking a vaccine deal with the European Union as soon as this weekend that will remove the threat of the bloc cutting off supplies, The Times reported on Saturday.
Under the agreement the EU will remove its threat to ban the export of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to Britain, it added.
In return, the UK government will agree to forgo some long-term supplies of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that had been due to be exported from Holland, the newspaper reported.
On Friday, the European Medicines Agency approved Halix production site in the Netherlands that makes the AstraZeneca vaccine and a facility in Marburg in Germany producing BioNTech/Pfizer shots.
The EU’s clearing of the vaccine site comes as the union is banking on them to boost deliveries in the second quarter and accelerate the slow pace of inoculations in the bloc.
Europe’s troubled vaccine rollout has led to a quarrel with Britain, which has imported 21 million doses made in the EU, according to an EU official. Britain says it did a better job negotiating with manufacturers and arranging supply chains.
The EU says that Britain should share more, notably to help make up the shortfall in contracted deliveries of AstraZeneca shots.
Brussels and London sought to cool tensions on Wednesday, declaring they were working ‘to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens’.