PARIS – A French doctor warned Monday that his country has “lost control of the epidemic,” a day after health authorities reported more than 52,000 new coronavirus cases as nations across Europe enact more sweeping restrictions to try to slow surging infection rates.
Spain — the first European country to surpass 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases — declared a state of emergency Sunday that included a nationwide overnight curfew, a cap of six people on social gatherings and possible travel bans in and out of the hardest-hit regions.
The effect was clear on Barcelona's famed Las Ramblas promenade, which was deserted Sunday night when it normally would have been teeming with people.
In two major Italian cities, people took to the streets amid a pushback from small sections of society to new restrictions. On Friday, demonstrators in Naples protested a locally imposed 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew and clashed with police. On Saturday night, far-right and neo-fascist groups led a similar protest in Rome against a curfew. Another protest is planned for Tuesday in Milan.
Dr. Jean-François Delfraissy, president of the scientific council that advises the French government on the virus, said the country is in a “very difficult, even critical situation."
"There probably are more than 50,000 new cases every day. Our estimate at the Scientific Council is closer to 100,000 – twice as many,” Delfraissy told RTL radio. “Between those who aren’t tested and asymptomatic patients, we’re close to that number of cases. This means the virus is spreading extremely fast.”
France declared a state of emergency earlier this month and has been imposing more and more restrictions since September to try to ease the pressure on France’s hospitals, where COVID-19 patients occupy more than half of all ICU beds.
Dr. Eric Caumes, head of the infections and tropical diseases department at Paris’ Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital, said the country needs to lock down again.
“We lost control of the epidemic but that doesn’t date from yesterday,” he said on broadcaster Franceinfo. “We lost control of the epidemic several weeks ago already.”
Europe’s confirmed death toll has surpassed 250,000 according to a count by Johns Hopkins University, which puts the global toll at more than 1.1 million.
A senior World Health Organization official said national lockdowns could be avoided if people are willing to make sacrifices.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said she hoped countries would use other tools to stop transmission, including strengthening their surveillance, testing and contact tracing systems.
“We can avoid national lockdowns,” Van Kerkhove said. She said people should take personal responsibility for everyday decisions, like whether or not they should go to crowded places, avoiding closed settings and postponing social gatherings.
Italy, the first country in the West to get slammed by COVID-19, took new measures over the weekend to try to rein in the new outbreak, ordering restaurants and bars closed by 6 p.m., and shutting down gyms, pools and movie theaters.
The measures, which took effect Monday, also require high schools to transition to at least 75% distance learning while letting younger students remain in classrooms. Indoor and outdoor gatherings, including those for religious reasons, are barred, and the government is strongly recommending people avoid having house guests and traveling in the country except for work, health or other necessities.
The new restrictions sent Rome resident Matteo Serba to the city's Villa Borghese for a run Monday.
“I used to go to gym. Now jogging in the park is the alternative," Serba said. "Unfortunately, we have no other alternatives but coming here. It’s sad but we have been asked to do it and we comply with the rules.”
Italy has been registering around 20,000 new confirmed infections per day and health authorities have warned that some hospital COVID-19 wards risk hitting the saturation point in the next week or two.
British authorities are likely to tighten restrictions on more areas of the country this week, amid mixed signs about whether measures introduced in the last few weeks have stemmed a steep rise in infections.
Government scientific advisers say there are some signs the increase has begun to level off since a three-tier system of restrictions came into force, but that it is too soon to be certain.
A large chunk of northern England, including the major cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield, has been placed in the top tier of “very high” risk, with pubs closed and people from different households barred from mixing. The government said that Warrington, another large town in the northwest, will be added to the top tier on Tuesday. Another city, Nottingham, will follow on Thursday, authorities there said.
Lawmakers in the Czech Republic, which has been one of the hardest-hit nations in the pandemic's resurgence in Europe, are set to approve this week a government plan to draft up to 300 military health personnel from NATO and EU countries to help treat the influx of patients.
They will help their Czech colleagues at Prague’s military hospital and at a field hospital for 500 patients that the armed forces completed over the weekend at Prague’s exhibition ground. The first group of 28 National Guard doctors from the United States is expected to arrive later this week.
Authorities also said they are canceling Prague's major Christmas markets because of the virus.
The Bavarian city of Nuremberg also canceled its big Christmas market, one of Germany’s best-known and a major tourist draw. City officials originally wanted the bustling Christkindlesmarkt to go ahead under strict hygiene rules, but Mayor Marcus Koenig said they concluded it would send the wrong signal as virus cases rise.
“This decision is very difficult for us. The Christkindlesmarkt with its great tradition belongs to Nuremberg,” Koenig said.
Germany's rising coronavirus numbers also prompted Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party to delay for the second time a decision on who will become its new leader — one that had already been pushed by the pandemic from the spring to December.
Whoever wins the Christian Democratic Union’s leadership will be in a position to become the center-right candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor in a German election expected next fall, although that isn’t guaranteed.
Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands. Associated Press reporters across Europe contributed.