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Europe sends workers back home as dreaded winter COVID wave hits

November 18, 2021, 12:26 PM UTC

There will be no more water-cooler chatter in Brussels for the foreseeable future.

Belgium told its workers Wednesday night that they will have to work from home four days out of five, making it the latest European country to grimly accept that new mandates and restrictions will be needed to beat back a rising winter wave of COVID-19.

In addition to the teleworking mandate, which will last at least until Dec. 12, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced that masks would be required indoors for people aged 10 and up, and people would need to show a Covid Safe Ticket (CST)—a digital pass that proves vaccination, a recent cured infection, or a negative test—to enter restaurants, theaters, and other public places as well as large outdoor public events.

“I understand the frustration and disappointment, as lots of people are getting tired,” De Croo said. But, with Belgium’s daily infection rate above 1,000 per million people, its highest in more than a year, the “epidemiological situation is in the red.”

Central Europe is facing the worst outbreak of the virus since the start of the pandemic, and Belgium’s move comes less than a week after Austria’s government announced a nationwide lockdown for unvaccinated people (on Thursday, two regions announced a lockdown for all people).

The three coalition partners in Germany’s likely incoming government have also come under pressure to take similar actions as a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to overwhelm Europe’s largest economy. “The fourth wave is hitting our country with full force,” Chancellor Angela Merkel warned on Wednesday. On Thursday, Germany reported more than 65,000 daily cases for the first time ever.

Germany’s national and regional leaders are meeting Thursday to discuss measures to suppress the country’s rising COVID wave, and the three coalition partners are passed a law of nationwide measures, which included a remote working mandate. A new study on Wednesday concluded that unless Europe’s hard-hit countries impose tough anti-contagion measures, the COVID death toll could spike by the tens of thousands.

While Belgium’s vaccination rate, at 74% of the population fully vaccinated, is higher than the EU average of 70%— and well about the 58% in the U.S.—the rising tide of infections has led to increased hospitalizations. And, last week, this country of 11.5 million surpassed 500 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units, more than a quarter of its 2,000 ICU beds.

Belgium—and EU vaccine laggards Germany and Austria—are not alone in tightening the screws on their populations as case loads spike, however. Some of the tightest new restrictions are found in Eastern Europe where vaccination rates are especially low.

Netherlands

With similar vaccination numbers to Belgium, and faced with a similar surge in COVID-19 cases, the Netherlands returned to a partial lockdown last weekend, with the government ordering restaurants, supermarkets, and bars to close at 8 p.m. and shops to close at 6 p.m. and barring spectators from professional sporting matches.

Sweden

Sweden’s Swedish Public Health Agency announced Wednesday that the country will for the first time introduce vaccine passes, starting Dec. 1. The health pass will be required to attend any event with more than 100 people.

The pass is akin to those that Italy and France introduced in late summer in which an adult must present proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test or a doctor’s certificate declaring they’ve recently fully recovered from the virus in order to enter a public place or workspace. Considered a controversial measure at the time of introduction, the Italian and French passes are credited with keeping COVID case numbers relatively low this autumn.

A year ago, Sweden adopted one of the most laid-back approaches to fighting COVID in Europe. While neighboring countries closed schools and shops and implemented face-mask mandates, Sweden opted to keep the country open for business with little to no restrictions. Rising cases are forcing the country to reconsider.

“Vaccine passes are a measure that we see as necessary,” Karin Tegmark Wisell, the health agency’s director general, said when announcing the move. Sweden’s daily infection rate is still low—83 per million people—but, she said, “We cannot just kick back and hope for the best”.

Slovakia

Slovakia has one of Europe’s lowest vaccine rates—43% of the population fully vaccinated—and highest infection rates—1,165 per million daily. The government of Prime Minister Eduard Heger will vote on proposed new restrictions Thursday. The proposals limit entry to workplaces, mass events, non-essential shops, sports events and health clubs to the fully vaccinated and, in some cases, to those who have recovered from COVID-19 or who have a negative test.

“We need to toughen up the measures significantly for the next three weeks so that we can stabilise the situation in hospitals,” PM Eduard Heger said on Tuesday.

Slovenia

Faced with the highest case rate in Europe—with almost 1,600 daily cases per million people—and only 55% of the population fully vaccinated, Slovenia’s government imposed tough new restrictions in early November, including a temporary prohibition on gatherings involving people of different households.

“Let us come together and stand united against the virus to preserve health and an open society, allow schools to remain open, and maintain a functioning healthcare system,” the director of the National Institute of Public Health, Milan Krek, said at the Nov. 6 announcement.

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