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European nations plan cautious easing of lockdowns for Christmas

For the second time this year, policymakers from Dublin to Rome are preparing to release Covid-19 lockdowns – and ‘save Christmas’ for the family reunions of 500 million Europeans. Except this time they avoid calling it a reopening.

The restrictions put in place in late October across Europe are starting to bear fruit, with a slowdown in new infections recorded in most countries, according to data tracked by the Financial Times. This is fueling calls from retailers to end mandatory closings of stores deemed non-essential during the top-grossing trade month of the year. But unlike the summer, European governments are warning there will be no large-scale easing of restrictions.

The UK, France and Ireland are among the countries where lockdowns expire in early December. They said they would only ease restrictions gradually after being too lax the first time around.

The first wave had taught EU countries the cost of “hastily” lifting social restrictions, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last week.

“This time, expectations must be managed,” she said, adding that the commission will define a “gradual and coordinated approach” to lift containment measures to avoid the “risk of a new wave”.

This time in Paris, French ministers are avoiding the term “de-containment” to designate the three-stage easing plan. First, stores deemed non-essential will be allowed to reopen with strict health protocols around December 1. Then, the measures – possibly when traveling – will be relaxed before the Christmas holidays, then again in January, depending on the evolution of Covid-19 infections and hospitalizations.

“Let us be clear: the lockdown will continue and so will the limitations of popular movements,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal told the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday. President Emmanuel Macron is due to address the nation on Tuesday to set the tone.

The same will be true for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday, when he is expected to present his plan for what will happen after England’s national lockdown expires on December 2. Mass testing is expected to play a big role in preventing a resurgence of the pandemic.

A member of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told the FT that modeling suggested that a return to completely uncontrolled mixing during the holiday season would take the R-value – which measures the reproductive rate of the disease – from its current level of around 1 to between 2 and 3 – which would mean another exponential rise in infections.

In Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte plans to let shops reopen in areas with low infection for 10 days before Christmas while limiting the size of family gatherings – Under Health Secretary Sandra Zampa suggesting that only the “family first degree ‘will be able to meet.

“This Christmas we all have to make the effort to really be as little as possible,” Ms. Zampa said on television over the weekend.

Customers in Düsseldorf city centers. Coronavirus cases remain relatively high despite lockdown-lite measures © Marcel Kusch / dpa

Christmas tree in front of the Houses of Parliament in the United Kingdom. England’s national lockdown expires on December 2 © Roger Harris / UK Parliament / AP

Even in Germany, which excelled at handling the first wave by responding quickly to warning signs, coronavirus cases remain relatively high despite the “lockdown-lite” measures imposed in early November.

Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday that the restrictions may need to be extended by two to three weeks. “In order for us to have a good Christmas, we need to extend the lockdown and tighten it as well,” he said, noting that although the shutdown had led to a stabilization of new infections, German intensive care units were and the number of deaths. of Covid-19 was rising.

If Germany’s shutdown were to be relaxed in time for Christmas, New Years Eve festivities would have to be drastically reduced, he said, also calling for a ban on alcohol and fireworks. in public places on December 31 and warning against winter ski holidays.

Martin Blachier, an epidemiologist at Public Health Expertise in Paris, said it was unlikely that food and drink stores would reopen before January in France, given that indoor meetings in restaurants, bars and homes were big diffusion factors.

“We know that if we’re not careful enough we’re going to have a third wave,” he said. “It is (unacceptable) to see the pandemic in France again, so they are likely to lift the restrictions very slowly.”

European countries have adopted different strategies at different times and have been affected by the virus in different ways – the per capita infection rate in Luxembourg, the most affected of 31 countries, is currently 22 times that of Finland, the less affected – but few regions escaped it unharmed.

Sweden, which was the only country in the EU not to have a formal lockdown in the first wave, recently unveiled what its prime minister called the most invasive measures in modern times, but which turned out to be limited restrictions on certain public gatherings. It is now the most restrictive Nordic country, according to the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker.

The rollout of antigen tests that give a result in 15 minutes and tell people if they need to self-isolate has given Europe a new weapon to keep the pandemic under control in the months to come – it is cited as one of the reasons for Madrid’s recent dramatic turnaround. and easing the pressure on its hospitals – but citizens across the continent still face months of limited social life until mass vaccination.

William Dab, professor of health and safety at the National Institute of Science, Technology and Management (CNAM), said rapid antigen testing could help prevent “a third lockdown, which would be a real disaster ”.

But that should be accompanied by a well-thought-out strategy and careful forecasting before the vaccines arrive, he said. “Managing an outbreak like this depends on isolating those who are contagious.”

Additional reporting: Arthur Beesley in Dublin, Miles Johnson in Rome, Guy Chazan in Berlin, Richard Milne in Oslo, Daniel Dombey in Madrid, Leila Abboud in Paris

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