As pressure builds on the UK government to reverse plans to relax coronavirus rules over Christmas, countries across Europe are rapidly rethinking their own plans in the face of a looming third wave.
Germany and the Netherlands have imposed sweeping new restrictions for the holidays, while the Italian government is expected to follow suit. “Further, new restrictions are now needed [...] we must avert at all costs a third wave,” Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte said on Tuesday.
Spain’s prime minister warned on Wednesday of a tougher plan for Christmas if infections continued to increase, and just days ago France announced it was tightening its rules over the holidays, including imposing an 8pm curfew except on Christmas Eve.
England’s health secretary Matt Hancock has joined the chorus of European leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, begging their citizens to reduce contacts to avoid turning festive gatherings into super-spreader events.
However, after agreeing with the devolved administrations last month to allow a maximum of three households to mix between December 23 and December 27, regardless of what local restrictions are in place, Britain’s rules are now more at odds with our European neighbours.
Germany entered a strict lockdown on Wednesday just as it registered a record number of 952 daily deaths from Covid-19. The previous highest daily increase in deaths was 598 on Friday.
From this week, Germany will only keep essential shops open until at least January 10 and private gatherings will remain limited to no more than five people from two households.
Rules will be eased from December 24 to 26, when one household can gather with four close family members from other households, but the government is recommending at least a week of quarantine before gatherings.
The Robert Koch Institute on Wednesday put the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany at 1,379,238, a daily increase of 27,728. The total death toll is 23,427. In the UK, another 18,450 new infections were announced on Tuesday.
The government is considering more stringent nationwide rules for the Christmas and New Year holidays after crowds flocked to city centres over the weekend – just after Rome had relaxed some restrictions. Police were forced to close off popular sites such as Rome’s Trevi fountain due to large crowds.
“We must avert at all costs a third wave, because this would be devastating, also from the point of view of the loss of lives,” prime minister Giuseppe Conte said on Tuesday.
Under an earlier decree Italians will not be able to attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve and will be only allowed to move between regions in emergencies between December 20 and January 6. Pope Francis’s Christmas Eve mass will start two hours earlier, allowing the limited number of people who can attend to be home by 10pm.
However, HuffPost Italy reports government leaders will meet again on Thursdsay for crucial talks over the further tightening of rules, with a partial national lockdown from December 24 to at least January 2 on the cards. Extending curfews, banning non-essential movement and closing non-essential shops, bars and restaurants at weekends and bank holiday are also being considered.
Italy reported 484 coronavirus-related deaths on Sunday after surpassing the UK the previous day as the European country with the highest death toll.
After announcing up to 10 people per household – up from six – would be allowed to gather for Christmas and New Year in Spain, prime minister Pedro Sanchez warned on Wednesday that he would propose stricter rules if infections continued to climb.
Under the current Christmas plans, curfews will be pushed back to 1.30am from 11pm on December 24 and December 31. Movement between regions will be banned between December 23 and January 6, except for visits to family.
However, speaking to Spain’s parliament, Sanchez described the recent rise in infections as “worrying” and left open the possibility he would recommend strengthening rules, HuffPost Spain reported.
“It is up to us not to open the door to a third wave at Christmas. If it is necessary to toughen the Christmas plan, the government will propose it, ” Sanchez said. “Let’s not throw everything away. It depends on us that there is no third wave.”
Data from Spain’s health ministry showed 10,328 new coronavirus cases were reported on Tuesday, bringing the total since the onset of the pandemic to 1,762,212 infections.
At the end of November, the French government paved the way for easing lockdown in stages, including lifting the 9pm curfew for Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations. On one condition: the daily number of coronavirus cases fell below 5,000.
But with the seven-day moving average of new daily infections still standing at more than 10,000, France on Tuesday lifted its stay-at-home order and replaced it with an 8pm nightly curfew, which will be waived for Christmas Eve only.
Anyone breaking the curfew is liable for a £120 (€135) fine.
“I know your weariness, your doubts, your sufferings. I share them,” prime minister Jean Castex said last week. “But first I owe you the truth and transparency about this epidemic which is going on longer than we would have liked.”
While travel will be allowed on December 24, no more than six adults can meet at a time, while cinemas and museums will remain closed, with bars and restaurants shut until at least mid-January.
The Netherlands has gone into an immediate hard five-week lockdown with the closure of all schools and non-essential shops. Gatherings will be limited to two people, with that limit raised to just three adult visitors over three days at Christmas.
From Tuesday, all public places – including daycare centres, gyms, museums, zoos, cinemas, hairdressers and beauty salons – will be closed until January 19. Schools will close until January 18.
“The Netherlands is closing down,” prime minister Mark Rutte said on Monday in a rare live television address. “We realise the gravity of our decisions, right before Christmas.”
Despite restrictions, shopping districts across the Netherlands have been crowded for weeks, with a spike in infections after the December 5 gift-giving celebrations marking the birthday of Saint Nicholas.
New coronavirus infections in the country of 17million increased by around 8,500 in the 24 hours to Monday morning. This followed a jump by almost 10,000 a day earlier, which was the biggest rise in more than six weeks.
Elsewhere in Europe
Belgian households will only be able to be in close contact with one extra person over Christmas. People living on their own will be able to meet two others. Fireworks will be banned on New Year’s Eve and foreign travel is strongly discouraged.
Hair salons and bookstores in Greece will reopen during Christmas, while other restrictions will remain in place until January 7. Churches will open for the Christmas and Epiphany masses on December 25 and January 6, with a limited number of worshippers.
There will be no limit on how many people can gather per household for Christmas in Portugal. The curfew will be pushed back from 11pm to 2am on December 24 and December 25. For New Year’s Eve, street parties will be banned and outdoor gatherings limited to a maximum of six people.
Norwegians will be able to invite up to 10 guests into their homes on two separate occasions between Christmas and New Year. Outside those days, the current limit of up to five guests will apply.
Three households in Ireland will be allowed to meet between December 18 and January 6, and the countrywide travel ban will be lifted for that period.
With additional reporting by Reuters.