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Fears 'Europe's prosperity is at stake' as Covid-19 infections reach record highs

Fears rose today that Europe is running out of time to control a resurgence of the coronavirus, as infections hit record daily highs in Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland.

People wear face masks to stop the spread of Covid-19, at the Vatican. Source: Associated Press

France also slapped a 9pm curfew on many of its biggest cities and Londoners faced new travel restrictions as governments imposed increasingly tough measures.

Newly confirmed cases have surged across Europe over recent weeks as the autumn kicks in, prompting authorities to bring back measures that had been relaxed over the summer. The Czech Republic, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, France and Britain are among the countries causing particular concern.

The head of the World Health Organization's Europe office urged governments to be “uncompromising” in controlling the virus. He said most of the spread is happening in homes, indoor spaces and communities not complying with protection measures.

“These measures are meant to keep us all ahead of the curve and to flatten its course,” Dr Hans Kluge said, while wearing a mask. “It is therefore up to us to accept them while they are still relatively easy to follow instead of following the path of severity.”

European nations have seen nearly 230,000 confirmed deaths in total from the virus — more than the nearly 217,000 deaths reported so far in the United States, according to figures tallied by Johns Hopkins University that experts agree understate the true toll of the pandemic.

Europe’s financial markets fell sharply today on concerns that the new restrictions on swaths of the region’s economy are already ending the nascent recovery from its sharpest recession in modern history. Major stock indexes were well over two per cent lower in Europe.

While Germany, the European Union's most populous nation, is still in comparatively good shape, alarm bells are ringing there too. The national disease control centre reported over 6,600 new cases today — exceeding the previous daily record set in late March, though testing has expanded greatly since then.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany's 16 state governors — who are responsible for imposing and lifting restrictions — agreed yesterday to tighten mask-wearing rules, make bars close early and limit the number of people who can gather in areas where infection rates are high. But those decisions “probably won’t be enough”, Merkel’s chief of staff, Helge Braun, told ARD television.

Germany added all of continental France and the Netherlands to its lengthy list of high-risk areas, meaning travellers coming from there must go into quarantine for two weeks or until they provide a negative test.

This week has seen the Netherlands close bars and restaurants, and the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland shut down schools. The Czech Health Ministry confirmed more than 9,500 new virus cases yesterday, over 900 more than the days-old previous record. The government announced today that the military will set up a virus hospital at Prague's exhibition centre.

“We have to build extra capacity as soon as possible,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said. “We have no time. The prognosis is not good.”

In France, which reported over 22,000 new infections yesterday, President Emmanuel Macron put 18 million residents in nine regions, including Paris, under a 9pm curfew starting this weekend.

France will deploy 12,000 police officers to enforce the curfew and will spend an additional 1 billion euros (NZD$1.77 billion) to help businesses hit by the new restrictions.

“Our compatriots thought this health crisis was behind us,” Prime Minister Jean Castex said. “But we can’t live normally again as long as the virus is here.”

Just as Macron’s government tackles the resurgence of infections, French police today searched the homes of a former prime minister, the current and former health ministers and other top officials in an investigation into the government’s pandemic response. It was triggered by dozens of complaints over recent months, particularly over shortages of masks and other equipment.

Aurelien Rousseau, director of the Paris region’s public health agency, said nearly half of its intensive care beds are now occupied by coronavirus patients, with other hospital beds filling rapidly too.

“It’s a kind of spring tide that affects everybody simultaneously,” Rousseau said. “We had a blind spot in our tracking policies. It was the private sphere, festive events.”

The British government today moved London and a half-dozen other areas into the country's second-highest virus risk level, meaning that millions will be barred from meeting people from other households in an indoor setting and will be asked to minimise travel.

“I know that these restrictions are difficult for people," said British Health Secretary Matt Hancock. "But it is essential that we do bring them in both to keep people safe and to prevent greater economic damage in the future.″

Italy today recorded its biggest single-day jump in infections since the start of the pandemic. It added over 8,800 cases and 83 deaths amid a resurgence that is straining the country’s contact-tracing system.

Poland registered a record of nearly 9,000 new cases today. Masks have been required outdoors since Monday and strict limits have been imposed on the size of gatherings.

Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia also announced record daily case numbers.

Portugal moved to restrict social gatherings to a maximum of five people, while preparing to make masks mandatory outdoors and to impose fines on those disregarding the rules.

Even Sweden, which has chosen a much-debated approach of keeping large parts of society open, raised the prospect of tougher restrictions.

“Too many don’t follow the rules," Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said. "If there is no correction here, we must take sharper measures.” He didn't elaborate.

In Germany, Bavaria's outspoken governor, Markus Soeder, hammered home the importance of taking action now, arguing that “everything that comes later will cost more”.

“I’ll even go so far as to say that Europe’s prosperity is at stake,” he said.