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Lockdown 2.0: Europe reimposes painful curbs as infections surge

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Countries across Europe are reimposing painful restrictions on public life as a surge in coronavirus infections heightens fears the pandemic is tightening its grip, bringing another public health emergency closer just as winter approaches.

In Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland, infections hit record daily highs on Thursday while France imposed evening curfews on its biggest cities and Londoners faced new limits on socialising indoors.

The resurgence of the virus is a huge setback for a continent that had largely succeeded in bringing infection rates down to manageable levels over the summer, after implementing tough lockdowns.

“Parts of Europe have lost control,” said Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, a virologist at the Bernhard Nocht Institute in Hamburg. “Authorities are no longer able to influence the spread of the virus.”

The Covid-19 pandemic worsens in Europe. Map showing reported cases per 100,000 people in the past 14 days to October 14. Ile-de- France reported more than 2,100 cases per 100k. This is a fivefold increase over the previous week

Germany, which has so far weathered the pandemic better than its neighbours, reported 6,600 new cases on Thursday — a new record. “The decisive challenge we face — not only in Germany but in the whole of Europe — is whether we can break the dynamic of the second wave and reach calmer waters,” said Peter Altmaier, economy minister.

The UK, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic have all unveiled new virus-related restrictions this week.

Health systems around the continent are switching to crisis mode as hospital wards begin to fill up with Covid-19 patients. Fears are growing that medical facilities could soon be inundated and that the swelling volume of new cases could overwhelm track-and-trace teams tasked with interrupting the virus’ chains of transmission.

The head of the World Health Organization’s Europe office welcomed the measures, calling them “absolutely necessary” to save lives. “The message to governments is: do not hold back with relatively small actions to avoid the painful damaging actions we saw in the first [virus wave],” Hans Kluge said.

Virus cases started to tick upwards after European governments eased lockdowns over the summer to kickstart economies that had been hit hard by the restrictions. But public health experts say Europeans let down their guard, holidaying abroad in large numbers, ignoring social-distancing rules and gathering in groups to eat, drink and socialise.

In the week to October 11, Europe registered its highest weekly number of Covid-19 infections since the pandemic began, with almost 700,000 new cases, according to WHO statistics.

Europe imposes new lockdown measures

UK

  • New cases per day: 18,980

  • Three-tier system introduced to curb surge in infections

  • Socialising with other households indoors to be banned in London

  • Strict lockdown measures in northern cities such as Liverpool

  • Local lockdowns in parts of Scotland and Wales

GERMANY

  • New cases per day: 6,638 

  • Threshold for local lockdown restrictions cut

  • Power to limit gatherings and impose curfews

  • Bars and nightclubs could be ordered to close

  • Peter Altmaier, economy minister: ‘Decisive challenge is whether we can break the dynamic of the second wave’

Governments have so far steered clear of draconian measures such as closing schools or reimposing nationwide shutdowns, for fear of inflicting more harm on economies still struggling to emerge from recession.

They have instead ordered curfews, bar and restaurant closures and curbs on social gatherings. But it remains unclear whether such limited measures will be sufficient to flatten the current curve.

Some of the most drastic measures were adopted by France, where the government reimposed a state of emergency on Wednesday and President Emmanuel Macron announced a 9pm-6am curfew for Paris and eight other big cities from Saturday.

He was responding to a steady rise in the number of infections and hospitalisations in France over recent weeks. “Our intensive care wards are under unsustainable pressure,” Mr Macron said.

French ministers said the aim of the restrictions was to curb private parties and gatherings among the young, which are thought to be one of the biggest sources of new infections.

Tougher restrictions came into force in Liverpool on Wednesday © Anthony Devlin/Bloomberg

In the UK, authorities announced that Londoners would be banned from socialising with other households in any indoor setting from midnight on Friday. Matt Hancock, health secretary, said infection rates were on a “steep upward path” in the capital and doubling every 10 days. Liverpool, in north-west England, has already been placed under a severe lockdown.

In the Netherlands, which has had one of the worst infection rates over the past month, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced on Tuesday that the country was entering a “partial lockdown” for at least four weeks, as new cases topped 7,000 a day.

Cafés, restaurants and bars have all been shut and the government has made the wearing of masks obligatory in all indoor public spaces and schools.

The surge has also affected countries that were left relatively unscathed by the first wave, with the Czech Republic a standout example. Almost 10,000 new cases were reported on Thursday, the most since the pandemic began, and nearly half of all confirmed infections in the country since the start of the outbreak have been recorded in the past two weeks.

Painful restrictions reintroduce for public life

FRANCE

  • New cases per day: 22,591

  • National ‘state of health emergency’ imposed to enforce new measures 

  • Strict 9pm curfew in big cities including Paris, Lille, Lyon, Montpellier and Toulouse 

  • Offenders risk fines of €135, rising to €1,500 for repeat offenders

Czech Republic

  • New cases per day: 9,544

  • Bars, restaurants, cultural and sporting facilities closed along with schools

  • Nearly half of all confirmed infections since pandemic began recorded in past two weeks

  • Prime minister Andrej Babis calls surge in cases ‘catastrophic’

The Czech Republic went into a strict lockdown early in the pandemic, but when the second wave hit, authorities were slow to react. Cases started to surge last month but it was not until last week that they closed cultural and sports facilities, while restaurants, bars and schools were only closed on Wednesday.

Andrej Babis, the prime minister who described the rise in cases as “catastrophic”, warned on Thursday that the Czech Republic was running out of time to put the healthcare infrastructure in place to cope with the surge. “We urgently need to build spare capacity,” he said. “The forecast is not good.”

In Spain, where infections rose dramatically in August and September before appearing to slow, a number of regions including Catalonia have unveiled new restrictions. Portugal also unveiled new curbs on public gatherings this week.

German authorities this week lowered the threshold for tougher measures to be introduced in virus hotspots. That would allow the government to demand mask wearing in public, restrict the number of guests at private parties and the early closure of restaurants and bars.

Reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin, James Shotter in Warsaw, Daniel Dombey in Madrid, Victor Mallet in Paris and Mehreen Khan in Brussels



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Europe

UK ends damaging post-Brexit clash over status of EU envoy

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UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab has finally ended a corrosive diplomatic dispute over the status of the EU’s ambassador in London, a stand-off that had added to post-Brexit tensions.

Raab had previously refused to grant João Vale de Almeida full diplomatic status after Brexit took effect on January 1, arguing the EU was an “international organisation” not a state.

Brussels retaliated by shutting Britain’s head of mission to the EU, Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, out of key meetings with EU officials, adding to Brexit tensions on trade and Northern Ireland.

But on Wednesday the issue was settled after a meeting between Raab and Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief.

Officials briefed on the deal said Vale de Almeida would now receive the same diplomatic recognition as his counterparts in EU missions in all other world capitals, including Washington and Beijing.

In a joint statement, issued at a G7 meeting in London, Raab and Borrell said they had reached an agreement based on “goodwill and pragmatism” on an establishment agreement for the EU delegation to the UK.

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While Vale de Almeida will enjoy full ambassadorial status, British officials said Raab had secured a deal “which gives us some of what we want” regarding the legal situation of EU staff in London.

EU officials will enjoy a largely similar status to other diplomats but with some downgrades: notably, under the agreement, they will not have immunity from prosecution for road traffic accidents.

Raab insisted on this carve-out following the death of Harry Dunn, a British motorcyclist killed in 2019 in a collision with a vehicle driven by Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat. She returned to the US claiming diplomatic immunity. 

But many British diplomats were dismayed at how long it had taken to resolve the dispute. “It was a stupid thing to do in the first place and we’ve had to back down,” said one former ambassador.

The diplomatic rapprochement was hailed in Brussels as a sign of a “new cycle” in UK-EU relations following the European parliament’s formal ratification last month of the trade deal between the two sides, which took effect on January 1.

There has also been a thawing in relations over the management of tensions in Northern Ireland, as London and Brussels look for ways to soften border checks on goods coming from the British mainland to the region.

Vale de Almeida will now get to present his diplomatic credentials to the Queen — an honour not available to the heads of international missions.

Boris Johnson has never recognised the EU as equivalent in status to a national government but Number 10 insiders insisted that the Foreign Office — not the prime minister — was responsible for the diplomatic dispute.

Meanwhile, Ireland and the UK announced plans for the first meeting in two years of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, a structure created under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for the two countries to liaise on issues around Northern Ireland. 

“We are aware that there are sincerely held concerns in different communities in Northern Ireland in relation to a number of issues and firmly agree that the best way forward is through dialogue and engagement,” said Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney in a joint statement after they met in Dublin on Wednesday afternoon.

The meeting will take place in June, ahead of the July marching season in Northern Ireland, which could inflame tensions between unionists — who feel that their region’s status in the UK is under threat from post-Brexit trading arrangements — and nationalists, who are pushing for a vote on a united Ireland. 

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France threatens to cut power to Jersey as fishing tensions rise

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France has threatened to cut off its power supply to Jersey in the Channel Islands, as tensions rise with the UK over the post-Brexit fishing regime.

Following the UK’s full departure from the bloc in January, French fishermen have expressed concerns at difficulties in receiving the necessary licences to fish in British waters.

The dispute also comes at a time when UK and EU negotiators are in discussions over the 2021 catch quota for shared fishing stocks.

Jersey, the largest channel island and a British crown dependency, receives 95 per cent of its electricity from France through underwater cables. Its foreign policy is governed by the UK, which means it is treated as a third country by the EU.

Annick Girardin, the French maritime minister, told France’s National Assembly she was “revolted” that Jersey had granted 41 fishing licences that included conditions and specific criteria that were “decided unilaterally and without explanation”.

“It’s unacceptable,” she told lawmakers. “We’re ready to resort to retaliatory measures . . . concerning Jersey, I’ll remind you of the transport of electricity via submarine cables.” Girardin added she would “regret” any action but “we’ll do it if we have to”.

French fishermen and ministers have been complaining for two weeks about the difficulty of gaining access to British waters despite the agreement on fisheries reached at the end of last year.

The anger among French fishermen at the delays in receiving licences for fishing in UK has prompted barricades for lorries arriving in Europe with UK-landed fish.

Clement Beaune, France’s junior minister for European Affairs, last week threatened to block regulations that would allow UK financial firms to do business in the EU if Britain does not respect its Brexit commitments on fishing.

Bertrand Sorre, an MP for President Emmanuel Macron’s governing La République en Marche party, gave the example of a fisherman from Granville in Normandy who had previously fished for scallops and whelks for an average of 40 days a year off Jersey; he had been told he could fish for only 11 days this year, and only for scallops.

Ian Gorst, Jersey’s external relations minister, said it had issued the licences in accordance with the UK’s trade and co-operation agreement with the EU and the new regime would “take time for all to adjust”.

“If French fishermen or the authorities have further evidence they would like to submit, we will update the licences to reflect that evidence,” he said in a statement.

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are clear that Jersey is responsible for its own territorial waters.”

UK business minister Nadhim Zahawi urged both sides to “iron out” issues with fishing. “We’ve got to look at this urgently and the best way to fix this is to work together,” he told Sky News.

A senior UK official said the government had been taken aback by the strength of the French reaction, which was seen as an “aggressive escalation” given that the UK had been working together on the question of licensing. “It’s a strange way to behave, from what is meant to be a friendly country,” they added.



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Hello, Berlin? Germany’s future raises foreign policy concerns for allies

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The writer is Fritz Stern chair at the Brookings Institution

President Joe Biden has made it clear that he really, really wants to work with Europe. After the four traumatic years of the Trump presidency, that seems an opportunity not to be missed. Also, Moscow and Beijing are undeterred by US and EU sanctions over the jailing of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and the mistreatment of Uyghurs in China.

They are dialling up the pressure on Europe with countersanctions, expulsions of diplomats and thuggish-sounding threats. But in Brussels, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is fighting with European Council president Charles Michel over charges of sexism and a Turkish sofa, instead of getting a grip on a double-dip recession and the pandemic.

British premier Boris Johnson is in trouble over costly wallpaper. French president Emmanuel Macron, up for re-election in 2022, is neck-and-neck in the polls with his far-right rival Marine Le Pen, while retired and current military officers are warning of civil war.

This would seem to be the moment for Germany, as a responsible neighbour, to step up and help out. But Europe’s most powerful economy is going to the polls even sooner than France: on September 26. As the 16-year tenure of Chancellor Angela Merkel comes to a close, the six parties scrambling to rule in the post-Merkel era are somewhat less than focused on goings-on beyond Germany’s borders.

The reason is the fragmentation of Germany’s colour-coded party landscape. In current polling, the Greens are fighting for first place with the CDU (black) at about 25 per cent, with the Social Democrats (red) far behind at 15 per cent, followed by the liberal Free Democrats (yellow) and the Left party (dark red) at around 11 per cent each.

The far-right Alternative for Germany is so radical that Germany’s domestic intelligence service wants to place it under observation. No other party will work with it, but it still captures about a tenth of the vote. This increases the likelihood that Germany’s next government will be a three-way coalition, with a kaleidoscope of possible combinations: black-green (or the reverse, with the CDU as junior partner); “Jamaica” (CDU-Greens-liberals); “traffic light” (Greens-SPD-liberals); and finally, “R2G” (SPD-Left-Greens).

This is why the small parties’ ideas suddenly matter. But in terms of foreign and security policy, none of the five presents a fully reassuring image to a neighbour or ally of Germany.

The Left party’s only path to government is R2G, a goal the powerful leftwings in the Greens and the SPD have been actively pursuing. But the Left too has radicalised, shedding its once influential east German pragmatists. Its new top duo opposes military engagement abroad of any kind. But it is also apparently clueless about pensions, and that may alienate its base.

The FDP has cabinet-ready experts on finance, digital issues and foreign and security policy — and a liability in Christian Lindner, their leader. The CDU and Greens are still smarting because of his petulant walkout from coalition negotiations in 2017. Last year, he faced a revolt in his own party after supporting the decision of a regional liberal politician to let himself be elected state governor with the AfD’s help.

The SPD’s Olaf Scholz is caught in a double bind. As Merkel’s finance minister, the opposition accuses him of oversight failures in a spate of financial scandals. As candidate for chancellor, he has seen the SPD leadership wrench the party to the left with anti-nuclear slogans reminiscent of the 1980s. Fritz Felgentreu, one of several seasoned legislators to resign in protest, calls his party’s security policy a “smouldering fire”.

Armin Laschet, the CDU candidate, has come under fire for sounding soft on Syria, Russia and China. Yet his real problems are corruption scandals and circling party frenemies. His party may be dealt another blow in next month’s state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, where some polls have the AfD in close pursuit.

All this does much to explain the rise of the Greens and Annalena Baerbock, their laser-focused candidate. Her criticism of China, the Kremlin and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is music to Washington’s ears. Yet the party’s feisty base has had ferocious fights over defence spending and nuclear deterrence. Its reliability as a partner is by no means guaranteed.

Of course, elections are generally not fought, or won, on foreign policy. But German voters would do well to remember that their country’s wealth and power depends on the stability and security of its neighbourhood. Maybe it is time to pay attention, and get a little worried. Its neighbours and allies already are.



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