European governments began stepping up planning for the next phase of their fight against the spread of the coronavirus, as countries at the heart of the outbreak reported fewer deaths from the disease.
Italy and Spain, Europe’s two hardest-hit countries, along with neighboring France, all signaled tentative moves to open up their economies after weeks of stringent lockdown measures.
Italy on Sunday posted its fewest number of deaths from the virus since March 14, while Spain reported the smallest increase in more than a month as it prepares to ease one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has confirmed plans for a gradual reopening, and he’ll speak at a news conference Sunday evening. France is set to announce easing measures this week.
With more than 100,000 fatalities in the region, Europe has been hit hard by COVID-19 and is bracing for the worst recession in living memory. The crisis has exposed longstanding political rifts, with leaders struggling to approve 540 billion euros ($584 billion) of short-term support measures and failing to make progress on a longer-term plan.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Saturday he expects to approve a further relaxing of the country’s confinement as Europe’s worst outbreak of the coronavirus eases. Measures due to be approved on Tuesday include allowing outdoor exercise and walks after May 2.
Italy will gradually restart its economy and allow people limited movement beginning on May 4, Conte confirmed in an interview Sunday in daily la Repubblica. “We cannot prolong this any longer,” Conte said. Continuing the full nationwide lockdown, in place since early March, would be a risk to the “country’s socio-economic fabric.”
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will present a plan to unwind his country’s lockdown on Tuesday. The government intends to ease some of the measures, with schools set to be first to reopen, though officials haven’t finalized their plans, according to news reports.
France and Spain are leading a group calling for the continent’s recovery to be funded by grants from a supercharged European Union budget, while the Netherlands and Austria are among those insisting the additional funds should take the form of loans.
New cases in Germany held below 2,000 for a second day on Sunday, even as government officials warned against a premature easing of restrictions. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas dampened expectations of an early reopening of European travel destinations.
“A European race to see who will allow tourist travel first will lead to unacceptable risks,” Maas said in an interview with Bild am Sonntag.
Not all of Europe seemed to be past the peak of the virus. In the UK the death toll topped 20,000 on Saturday, the fifth-highest in the world, and business has slowed to a crawl. Testing for the virus has lagged the government’s own goals and health-care workers continue to complain of shortages of protective equipment, like masks and gowns.
The UK did report a sharp drop in deaths on Sunday, with new fatalities at 413, about half the previous day’s level and the lowest since March 31.
Any decision on steps to reopen the economy will ultimately rest with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is due to return to work on Monday, a month after he was struck down by the coronavirus. Johnson was seriously ill in the hospital with COVID-19 and spent three nights in the intensive-care unit.
Pressure to end lockdown
Six business leaders, including billionaires Michael Spencer and Peter Hargreaves, have written to the government asking them to ease lockdown restrictions, according to the Sunday Times. Keir Starmer, the recently installed leader of the opposition Labour Party, has written to the prime minister urging the government to work on an exit strategy.
Even a controlled opening will be risky, Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist and member of the scientific group advising the government on the virus, said in an interview with news website UnHerd on Saturday. Even if control efforts managed to isolate 80 percent of those most vulnerable to the virus, the death toll in the UK could reach 100,000 later this year.
The World Health Organization offered a cautionary note on reopening efforts yesterday, saying that catching COVID-19 once may not protect you from getting it again.
The guidance came after some governments suggested that people who have antibodies to the coronavirus could be issued an “immunity passport” or “risk-free certificate” that would allow them to travel or return to work, based on the assumption that they were safe from re-infection.