New York – Was it all for nothing? With Spain, France and Germany recording the highest number of COVID-19 cases since they emerged from lockdown, the danger that Europe blows its best chance of taming the novel coronavirus grows by the day.
The hope was that we could relax travel and social restrictions this summer because people are much less likely to catch the virus when they’re outside enjoying the warm weather. European economies depend on tourism and couldn’t afford a season of empty sun loungers and restaurants. Airlines and hotels would collapse without new bookings, and they implemented new hygiene measures to reassure customers. People were desperate to see friends and families again.
The experiment has backfired. We’re not even through August and cases are surging in Western Europe, while Southeastern Europe, which avoided the worst of the initial virus wave, is up against it too. Germany won plaudits for its handling of the spring outbreak, but it recorded more than 2,000 new cases last Saturday — the biggest daily jump since April.
One big factor has been the restart of intra-European travel, including people going on vacation or visiting family and friends. Almost 40 percent of recent German cases are thought to have been contracted abroad, according to the Robert Koch Institute. That’s similar to Italy, where almost a third of new cases were imported from overseas. Italians holidaying on Sardinia have also brought the virus back to the mainland.
There has also been a spate of European cases linked to parties. France — with almost 5,000 new infections reported on Sunday — says this is its main source of new contagion. No wonder the European Union’s trade commissioner, Phil Hogan, is under pressure to quit after attending a hotel dinner with about 80 guests, in contravention of Ireland’s rules.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Europe must avoid closing borders again “at any cost.” Free movement is central to the EU project, and shutting borders contributed to a collapse in economic output in the spring. Yet politicians can’t ignore the fact that people are catching the virus abroad and bringing it home.
For those who never travel overseas, for domestic business owners who’ve already suffered through one lockdown not of their making, and for the medical staff who must treat another cohort of COVID-19 patients, these developments are especially frustrating. The answer is much more rigorous testing and monitoring of returning travelers and much stricter rules around social gatherings.
Fortunately, the number of new hospitalizations and deaths is a fraction of what it was in the spring because there are more cases among young people, who experience either mild symptoms or none at all. The detection of more imported cases points to some improvements in testing. With the summer travel season drawing to a close, the problem of returning travelers should abate somewhat.
But the economic damage done by this new spike is already considerable. Friday’s tepid eurozone services data and Ryanair Holdings’ decision to scale back its autumn flight schedule suggest consumers are becoming more cautious. The list of countries subject to quarantine measures is growing.
There’s a risk too that infections will begin to spread from young people to the elderly, and that schools and nurseries will be closed again — every parent’s and finance minister’s nightmare. In the two weeks since they’ve reopened, more than 40 Berlin schools have already reported virus cases, forcing pupils and teachers to quarantine, according to The Associated Press.
Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron say they’re determined to avoid new lockdowns, but they need to get a grip. There is plenty that governments can do without reimposing draconian measures. It’s vital that anyone arriving from a high-risk area is tested. In Germany checks for returning travelers are free. However, local health authorities don’t always have the capacity to monitor returning passengers to ensure they’ve been tested or quarantined. There are reports of long delays in getting results.
German infections have also surged among parents and children returning from Southeast Europe. The DRV German travel association’s attempt to blame migrants for this and exonerate package holidaymakers was crude and unhelpful. Popular holiday destinations also feature prominently in the list of imported cases.
A rise in German cases linked to weddings and private parties was hardly a shock because the rules around friends and families meeting vary so widely. Federal states are allowed to set their own guidelines and some are too permissive: In Berlin as many as 500 people can meet inside. In contrast, England restricts private gatherings to a maximum of 30 people and the government has threatened fines for breaches. Ireland has tightened restrictions so that only six people may meet indoors. (Up to 50 people can attend a wedding.)
German Health Minister Jens Spahn is right that if we must choose between reopening schools or having parties and attending carnivals, then the choice is obvious. Germany and other countries with surging infections should take their lead from Airbnb Inc., which has banned parties at its properties and put a cap on occupancy of 16.
Unless Europe gets the basics right then countries may be forced to take even more unpopular measures to protect their populations, including advising the elderly to stay home and keep away from younger relatives. The autumn and winter months won’t be easy, but acting now can avoid unnecessary hardship.
Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for The Financial Times.
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