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Europe tightens lockdowns to ward off U.K. coronavirus variant

January 15, 2021, 11:43 AM UTC

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With faster-moving new COVID-19 variants taking hold in Europe, governments are scrambling to mitigate their effects on already overburdened health services.

For 15 days starting Saturday, the French won’t be allowed to leave their homes between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.—a countrywide tightening of the existing 8 p.m. curfew that has already been adjusted to 6 p.m. in particularly hard-hit areas.

The French government has also banned indoor sports activities again, and travelers arriving in the country from outside the EU will need to bring a negative COVID-19 test result and self-isolate for a week before taking a second test.

According to the health ministry, around 1% to 1.5% of the coronavirus cases being diagnosed in France right now are the new U.K. variant.

Like new mutations of the virus emanating from South Africa and Brazil, this version of SARS-CoV-2 is far more transmissible. That doesn’t mean it is intrinsically more deadly, but it does raise the likelihood of more people getting sick and requiring hospitalization. French hospitals are already under heavy pressure from existing cases.

“We must do everything to prevent this variant from spreading in France,” Health Minister Olivier Veran said Thursday.

Better masks

In Germany, where the case total surpassed 2 million on Friday, Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly told members of her center-right Christian Democratic Union party that she wanted to see “significant additional measures,” including a reduction in social contacts to fight the British variant.

Merkel has generally called for harsher measures than those agreed upon by state premiers in Germany’s federal system. This time, she reportedly wants to see the countrywide adoption of a rule instituted in Bavaria this week: People visiting shops or taking public transport now have to wear medical-grade FFP2 masks (similar to North America’s N95 standard) rather than cloth masks while doing so.

The Chancellor also reportedly wants to see more border checks. She and the state premiers were scheduled to meet on Jan. 25 to discuss next steps in the German lockdown, but she’s trying to bring that forward to next week. The lockdown is already likely to be in place for at least another two months.

Meanwhile, the hotspot state of Thuringia was due to hold a regional election on Apr. 25 but has now moved it to Sept. 26, the day of Germany’s federal election. The Thuringia election was supposed to be the first of several state polls this year, and was keenly awaited as a bellwether for how those and the national election might play out.

Italian emergency

Over in Italy, a state of emergency that was instituted in January 2020 has now been extended until the end of April. It was originally supposed to expire at the end of this month. A ban on interregional travel will remain in place for at least the next month.

“In the past week there has been a generalized worsening of the epidemic,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza told lawmakers Thursday. “We are back to an expansionary phase.”

“We have to stop the virus, and we have to stop [it] before the arrival of the so-called British variant,” warned Walter Ricciardi, a senior adviser to Speranza, in a Bloomberg interview on Friday.

The public health professor was echoing the words of EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, who said Wednesday that the variant “must be stopped at all costs.” She promised help for EU countries in stepping up their genomic sequencing of coronavirus samples—the only way to monitor which variants are in circulation.

Ricciardi described Italy’s current vaccine rollout as “going pretty well”—almost 60% of Italian health care workers have already been inoculated—but he said the U.K. mutation could change Italy’s goals for general herd immunity.

“If the British variant is taking over…we have to vaccinate almost 90% to 95% of the population, while with the current variant we can stay happy with 70% to 80%,” he said.

Denmark has also extended lockdown measures, which were due to be lifted at the end of this week, until Feb. 7. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said the extension was needed “not least to ensure that the British mutation does not spread.”