'Not a game': Europe pleads with young people to halt Covid-19 spread


As the number of Covid-19 cases rises sharply in parts of Europe, health authorities from the UK to Spain are calling on young people to do more to halt the spread of the virus. This is how the situation looks in a number of major European countries and how it is being tackled.

Spain

In Spain, which on Monday became the first western European country to record more than 500,000 Covid-19 cases, authorities have been urging greater vigilance among young people for weeks. This month will also prove key as young people across the country begin returning to their studies after a six-month absence.

According to the latest official figures, 25% of new cases are being detected in people aged 15-29, while those aged 15-59 account for 71% of new cases. The most overrepresented groups are men and women aged 15-44 and women aged 89 and over.

Over the past week, the number of cases in every 100,000 in people aged 15-29 was 158.2, compared with an all-age average of 102.5.

On Tuesday, the health ministry launched a new campaign that aims to remind the population, “especially young people”, of the importance of handwashing, wearing a face mask and maintaining social distance.

The campaign, hashtagged #EstoNoEsUnJuego (#ThisIsNotAGAme) features a black-and-white video that riffs on a Spanish children’s rhyme and shows young people gathering to drink in the street before cutting to images of people in hospital – including an older woman being treated by a medic in full PPE – and, ultimately, to a picture of a coffin on a gurney.

“If we don’t follow the health guidelines, we put our lives – and those of others – at risk,” runs the warning. “Help us follow them.”

In Madrid, the worst hit Spanish region, indoor or outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people have been banned. The regional government, which has been criticised for its lack of test-and-trace resources, said last week that it would almost double the number of contact tracers in the region, from 560 to about 1,100.

While the governments of some regions have been imposing their own localised lockdowns on a case-by-case basis, Spain’s health minister has ruled out another nationwide confinement: “There’s no comparison with what we saw in March; the system isn’t overwhelmed”. SJ

France

In its most recent report, covering the week to 1 September, the health authority documented an “exponential progression” of virus transmission “mainly among young adults” and noted a “failure of young adults to apply prevention measures”.

It appears the biggest increase in new cases in that week compared with the previous one was a 44% rise among 0- to 14-year-olds – this was a week before the return to school – followed by a 33% rise among 15- to 44-year-olds, a 30% rise among those aged 45-64, and a 36% rise in those aged 75 and over.

On Monday, one TV channel showed videos of a number of packed nightclubs in Paris, where there were very few people wearing masks and zero social distancing. Restaurants and bars across the capital are very crowded during the evenings and again, young adults are still giving the bises (pecks on the cheek) and not keeping 1m apart. KW

Ireland

Young people are playing a disproportionate role in a surging rate of infection, prompting warnings about the reopening of college campuses.

The section of the population more likely than any other to get coronavirus, and to expose others to infection, are those aged 15-24.

Ireland’s 14-day cumulative incidence of cases has risen to 34.7 cases for every 100,000 people, higher than the UK and Italy but still far behind Spain. Ronan Glynn, the acting chief medical officer, on Monday expressed “growing concern” at the rise, especially in Dublin and Limerick.

Without strict measures, reopening college campuses would multiply physical interactions and extend and amplify social contact chains among those most likely to become infected and to spread the virus, Seán L’Estrange, a social scientist at University College Dublin, wrote in a research note. “Colleges committing to recreating the ‘campus experience’ pose a very particular challenge to public health,” he added.

In Northern Ireland, a former health minister, Jim Wells, warned that the region was facing a second wave driven by young people. He told the BBC the Stormont executive should “hammer home that message, that just because you’re between 18 and 30 doesn’t mean you’re not a carrier”. RC

Italy

The health minister, Roberto Speranza, has called on young people to “lend a hand” to help contain coronavirus as the median age of people becoming infected dropped to 32 over the past 30 days.

“They have paid a huge price in recent months, beginning with the closure of schools and universities, and we ask them to help because the virus is less harmful to young people,” Speranza said on Monday.

“But they risk transferring the virus to their parents and grandparents, and so we continue to ask young Italians to respect the fundamental rules, starting with wearing masks and maintaining a 1-metre distance.”

After a couple of months of relative calm, Italy saw a resurgence of coronavirus in mid-August, with many of the cases traced to nightclubs, which were then closed.

Young holidaymakers returning home from at-risk countries as well as the island of Sardinia have also driven the recent rise in cases.

Data from the country’s Higher Health Institute on Monday showed that 62.1% of those who tested positive within the last 30 days were aged between 19 and 50.

Italy is yet to take any specific measures to mitigate the spread of the virus to more vulnerable groups, but certain areas, for example the city of La Spezia in Liguria, have moved to ban music in bars. AG

Germany

Increasing numbers of young Germans are becoming infected and currently more than half of new infections registered are of people under the age of 30.

The incidence of 20- to 24-year-olds is now more than 30 out of 100,000, compared to just 10 for 40- to 49-year-olds and two among the 70- to 79 age group. While the 80-plus age group accounted for 17% of new infections in April, now it is just 4%.

There is particular concern in Berlin, where the incidence of the virus among 20- to 24-year-olds is as high as 43 in every 100,000 (the Berlin average is 13.7). The popular district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg is under particular focus.

“It’s parties which are to blame for this,” Berlin’s health minister, Dilek Kalayci, said on Monday, warning that if the figures did not drop, authorities would be forced to introduce tougher measures. Police have already been habitually breaking up large gatherings in parks and riversides across the city or raiding illegal parties.

Of particular concern, said Kalayci, is that compared to outbreaks in groups which are easier to localise and contain, 87% of new infections are of individuals capable of spreading the virus throughout the German capital. Clubs and many other venues remain closed.

Thousands of young Germans have been heading to Prague in the neighbouring Czech Republic as an alternative. But authorities there have now said clubs and discos will close from midnight on Wednesday due to a rise in cases.

Bans on selling alcohol have been introduced locally, in Munich and Hamburg. But authorities have so far been hesitant to put more restrictions on young people out of fear that they may backfire. KC