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Europe’s third wave: ‘It’s spreading fast and it’s spreading everywhere’

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More than a year after the start of the pandemic, Europe is enduring a grim spring. Covid-19 infections, hospitalisations and deaths are rising in many countries as the continent grapples with a more infectious variant, a shortage of vaccines and public weariness with lockdowns.

In France “the epidemic is spreading fast, and it’s spreading everywhere,” prime minister Jean Castex told parliament on Thursday after President Emmanuel Macron announced the country’s third nationwide lockdown, which includes travel restrictions and school closures and extends a 7pm-6am curfew.

In two weeks, Castex said, the number of recorded new cases in France had risen 55 per cent to about 38,000 a day. This two-week growth compares with a rise of 95 per cent in Belgium and 48 per cent in the Netherlands in a similar timeframe; in Germany, they have risen 75 per cent. Part of this increase reflects an expansion in testing.

The latest pandemic surge in Europe, triggered by the spread of the now dominant B.1.1.7 strain of the virus first noted in England, is often called a “third wave”, but observed across the continent as a whole it is more like a confused sea in which some national epidemics are worsening, some are reaching their peak and others are declining. 

Charts showing that outbreaks are growing again as much of Europe battles its third wave. ICU occupancy is rising in countries including Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Poland, and is at a record high in Poland and Hungary

In Germany, the EU’s most populous nation, “since mid-March about 1,000 more ICU patients have landed in hospital,” said Christian Karagiannidis of the country’s Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine. If things continue at this rate, he said, “we will have reached the limits of our regular capacity in less than four weeks”.

With older people prioritised for vaccines, it is no longer only the aged who are fighting for their lives in intensive care units across Europe. “Now it’s middle-aged and also younger patients who must be ventilated,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a podcast on Friday.

In Spain and Italy, the situation is also deteriorating. “With the English variant, despite all the restrictions in place, we have not had the drop in new cases that we had hoped for,” said Giovanni Leoni, vice-president of the Italian doctors’ federation.

Eastern Europe is also hard hit. In Poland, the third wave of the pandemic has been the worst so far, driving daily infections to record levels and putting intense strain on the country’s health system. There are now more people on ventilators and in hospital with Covid-19 in Poland than at any time since the pandemic began in China last year.

Chart showing that the ‘UK variant’ B.1.1.7 is now spreading rapidly across Europe, accounting for 75% or more of new cases detected in countries including Poland, France, Germany and Sweden

“These are the worst days of the pandemic that we are going through,” Polish health minister Adam Niedzielski said in a television interview last week. In the Czech Republic, cases have started to fall after the government launched a strict lockdown in the wake of a late February surge. Cases in Slovakia have also peaked.

A slow rollout of vaccines has constrained the ability of the 27 member states — which carried out joint procurement of the jabs — to control the pandemic. This is in sharp contrast to the rapid rollout in Israel, the UK and the US. “We have over 200,000 doctors ready to vaccinate citizens, but the lack of jabs is slowing everything down. By now we should have been way ahead, but we are still completely bogged down.” Leoni said.

Supplies should improve rapidly in the next few weeks. Vaccine deliveries are forecast to jump from 107m doses in the first quarter to 360m in the second, according to the European Commission. The differential is even wider than it appears because 55m of the second-quarter jabs are the single-shot Johnson & Johnson drug. The other three approved vaccines use two doses per patient. This should mean the EU has sufficient jabs to hit its target to inoculate 70 per cent of its adult population — or about 255m people — by September.

“Member states need to be ready for an acceleration in the delivery,” an EU official said. “The logistics must follow, and this is their responsibility. They must start now organising mass vaccination and vocal campaigns to convince citizens to go to get a vaccine.”

The global tussle for vaccines has added to tensions between the UK and the EU, and caused ructions among bloc members over allocations.

A medical worker administers a jab in Hungary, which has the highest death rate per capita in the EU, but tops the charts for vaccinations © Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

Hungary — which has recently been suffering the most deaths per capita in the EU and has one of the world’s highest Covid-19 fatality rates — is near the top of the charts for vaccinations out of the 27, with more than 20 per cent of people having received at least one jab. This compares with 12.5 per cent across the EU. That was because Hungary did not wait for European Medical Agency jab approvals and imported two Chinese and one Russian vaccine to supplement its supplies.

As they wait for vaccines, Europe’s governments are struggling to persuade their citizens to accept further stringent lockdowns a year into the pandemic. Germany “urgently need[s] a hard lockdown for two weeks, mandatory tests in schools twice a week and a much faster pace of vaccinations in the centres and GP practices,” Karagiannidis said.

Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, criticised the arguments of European leaders such as Macron in France who have said that they need to avoid excessively onerous lockdowns to save their economies. 

Countries such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, Flahault said, had imposed aggressive suppression strategies for health reasons “and they have economic outcomes that are much better than the EU’s” because they have returned more quickly to normal life after halting the spread of the disease. 

Yet it is probably too late to impose total lockdowns again in Europe, said Martin Blachier, an epidemiologist at Paris-based Public Health Expertise, a consultancy. “The German and French governments just realise it’s impossible to lock down the country. People are going crazy so they don’t want to stay at home.”

Until more vaccines arrive, Europe is reliant on social distancing and test and trace systems. For now, said Blachier, “lockdowns are not a solution any more, and the vaccines are insufficient”.

By Victor Mallet in Paris, John Burn-Murdoch in London, Guy Chazan in Berlin, Michael Peel in Brussels, Davide Ghiglione in Rome, Valerie Hopkins in Budapest, James Shotter in Warsaw and Ian Mount in Madrid

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Europe

Fears grow over media independence in Czech Republic

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European media groups have warned that the independence of the Czech public broadcaster is under mounting pressure, ahead of a parliamentary election in the central European nation later this year.

Czech Television (CT) remains one of the few independent public broadcasters in central Europe, where governments in countries such as Poland and Hungary have reduced public media to their mouthpieces.

However, media groups and Czech opposition politicians are worried that new appointments to CT’s governing body, which are due to be voted on in the next parliamentary session starting today, could lead to CT’s autonomy being undermined.

Czech MPs are set to pick four new members of CT’s governing body, the Council. The Council does not directly control the broadcaster’s content, but has the power to fire its director-general.

Opposition MPs have claimed that candidates on the shortlist for the four open positions on the 15-strong Council have been picked not for their media expertise but because their views align with those of the ANO party of prime minister Andrej Babis and its allies.

Czech Republic prime minister Andrej Babis owned various media titles including two big newspapers through his company Agrofert © AP

MPs from ANO deny this. “For us, the only criterion is whether the candidates have met all the requirements for selection required by law,” Stanislav Berkovec, an ANO MP, told the website iRozhlas.cz last month.

However, the situation in Prague has prompted the European Broadcasting Union, which represents public service media, to issue an unusually strong warning about governments across Europe “trying to silence opposition voices by restricting freedom of the press”.

EBU director-general Noel Curran and Delphine Ernotte, the chief executive of France Televisions and EBU president, have written to Czech MPs urging them to protect the independence of the national broadcaster.

“In recent months, it has become alarmingly clear that the Czech Republic’s government is trying to exert pressure on [the independence of Czech Television], directly and indirectly,” the EBU said in a statement.

“It may be that only pressure from outside will preserve the hard-won independence of a public-service broadcaster that is crucial . . . to the democratic future of a nation often seen as a bulwark against authoritarianism in central and eastern Europe.”

The Vienna-based International Press Institute, a media watchdog, has expressed similar concerns, warning that the manoeuvring around the Council appointments could, in the worst case, pave the way for the removal of the current director-general of CT, Petr Dvorak.

“We find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the real aim is to fill the CT Council with enough figures who are critical of Dvorak to ensure that there is a majority to vote to dismiss him when the opportunity arises,” it said.

Observers say that CT’s independence is particularly important, given that many private Czech media groups are controlled by oligarchs. Prime minister Babis, himself a billionaire, owned various titles including two big newspapers through his company Agrofert, before he put his assets in trust in 2017.

“Czech public television, especially its information channel, is one of the most trusted of sources of information, especially concerning the pandemic . . . It is also one of the few which has overall reach and can get to everyone in the country,” said Martin Ehl, a senior journalist at Hospodarske Noviny, a leading Czech daily, and senior associate at the think-tank Visegrad Insight. “It is very important in this media environment, where different oligarchs own different media.”

The battle in Prague comes ahead of a parliamentary election in October, in which Babis’s ANO, which has headed a coalition government for the past four years, is facing a serious challenge from opposition parties. A poll last month put ANO second behind the centrist Pirate party.

The battle also has echoes of conflicts around Europe as public broadcasters in various countries are fighting to preserve their independence against governments who are aggressively seeking to influence output, or hobble the organisations by cutting taxpayer funding. 

Poland and Hungary are the most striking examples of how public broadcasters have been turned, through management and staff changes, into enthusiastic champions of the ruling party’s illiberal political agenda. But MEPs and campaigners fear the tactics are spreading to countries such as Slovenia, the Czech Republic and beyond. 

Adam Cerny from the Czech journalists’ group, Syndikat Novinaru, said there was “increasing risk” that the Czech Republic could go in the same direction as Poland and Hungary. But he expressed scepticism that ANO would want to have a such a big fight before the election. “I don’t think that Babis wants open political confrontation because of Czech TV,” he said.



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CDU leadership backs Armin Laschet’s bid to be German chancellor

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Armin Laschet won a key victory in his campaign to succeed Angela Merkel when the party he leads, the Christian Democratic Union, backed him as their candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election.

The CDU governing executive’s decision to back Laschet was a setback for Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria, who has also laid claim to the title.

The move was expected, but could prove controversial. Söder is by far the more popular politician, and many CDU MPs had argued in recent days that the party would have a much better chance of winning September’s election with Söder as their candidate.

After throwing his hat into the ring on Sunday, Söder said he would accept the CDU’s decision. However, it is still unclear whether his party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, will accept Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate. The CSU’s executive is meeting later on Monday.

Sunday’s events threw the process for finding a successor to Merkel, who will step down this year after 16 years as Germany’s leader, into confusion. The CDU and CSU traditionally field a joint candidate for chancellor: that person is usually the leader of the CDU, which is by far the larger party.

Volker Bouffier, governor of the western state of Hesse, said the CDU’s executive had unanimously backed Laschet at a meeting in Berlin on Monday morning. He added, however, that no formal decision had been made on the issue.

Bouffier said the executive had made clear “that we consider [Laschet] exceptionally well-suited and asked him to discuss together with Markus Söder how we proceed”. He added that “the current polls should not determine the decision over [who we choose as] candidate”.

Since Laschet was elected CDU leader in January, the party has suffered a precipitous slump in the polls and that created an opening for Söder. He has frequently argued that the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate should be the politician with the best chances of winning in September.

Voters have blamed the CDU for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations. Revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks also badly damaged the party’s image.

The malaise in the CDU was highlighted last month when it slumped to its worst ever election results in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls currently put support for the CDU/CSU at between 26 per cent and 28 per cent, way down on the 33 per cent it garnered in the last Bundestag election in 2017.

There was more bad news at the weekend for Laschet, who as well as being CDU leader is also prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A poll for broadcaster WDR in NRW found that only 26 per cent of voters in the state are satisfied with the work of the regional government Laschet leads and only 24 per cent of voters consider him a suitable candidate for chancellor.

The slide in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens. The party garnered 8.9 per cent of the vote in 2017 and is now polling at 23 per cent. It is seen as a racing certainty that it will be part of Germany’s next government.



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EU and UK edge towards accord on trade rules for Northern Ireland

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The UK and the EU are making progress in talks on how to apply post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, raising hopes of an agreement that could help reduce tensions that have spilled over into violence on the streets of Belfast.

Officials on both sides said that recent days of intensive contacts had given cause for optimism that the UK and EU can craft a “work plan” on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the post-Brexit terms for goods to flow between the region and Great Britain. EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost may meet to review progress this week. 

“They are advancing on a technical level and probably we will see a [Frost-Sefcovic] meeting rather sooner than later”, said one EU diplomat, while cautioning progress depended on firm commitments from the UK and its “unequivocal support” for the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Other EU diplomats and officials said strong UK engagement in the technical talks on implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol had raised hopes that an understanding could be reached. 

“The mood seems to have warmed up a bit — the tone of the discussions is quite good,” said one British official. 

The talks are a follow up to a draft plan about implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that was submitted by the UK to Brussels at the end of last month — a step the EU said was essential to rebuilding trust after Britain unilaterally extended waivers for traders from some aspects of the rules in March. This move prompted EU legal action.

The discussions between British and EU officials in recent days have taken place against the backdrop of violence in Northern Ireland, stoked in part by resentment within the unionist community at how the protocol treats their region differently to the rest of the UK.

From April 2 there were eight consecutive nights of unrest in Northern Ireland, involving both unionist and nationalist areas. The police responded by deploying water cannons for the first time in six years.

The Brexit deal placed a trade border down the Irish Sea in order to keep commerce seamless on the island of Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol requires customs and food safety checks for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Officials said the EU-UK talks now under way about implementation of the protocol cover a wide array of practical issues ranging from trade in steel and medicines to the policing of food safety standards, how to deal with residual soil on plant bulbs, and the construction of border inspection posts. 

“Technical talks are ongoing”, said an EU official. “Depending on the progress made at technical level, a political-level meeting may be held soon.”

But EU diplomats and officials also cautioned that more work remains to be done, especially on the thorny issue of applying food safety checks. Difficult talks also lie ahead on the timetable for putting particular measures in place.

Meanwhile Downing Street played down a report in The Observer that it was resisting proposals by Dublin for a special crisis summit to address the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland.

“We have not refused anything,” said a Number 10 official. “It’s something we will consider.”

However there are concerns on the British side about the wisdom of holding a summit in Northern Ireland with Irish government ministers at a time when pro-UK loyalist groups have been engaged in street violence.

Irish officials said taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson have spoken and would “maintain close contact over coming days”.



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