The prime ministers of France and the Netherlands have issued stark warnings about their coronavirus figures, while in Spain, the western European country hardest hit by the virus, Madrid authorities have rejected the central government’s call for a lockdown across the capital.
Santé Publique France, the French public health authority, tallied 15,797 new confirmed cases on Friday, just shy of a daily record of 16,096 set on Thursday.
The figures came as officials at the World Health Organization warned that infection rates were rising across Europe and called on governments in the region to take measures to stop new outbreaks ahead of the winter flu season.
“Europe has a lot of work to do to stabilise the situation and bring transmission under control,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergency expert, told a press conference. “Overall within that very large region we are seeing a worrying increase in disease.”
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid technical lead, said: “We are at the end of September and we haven’t even started our flu season yet, so what we are worried about is the possibility that these trends are going in the wrong direction”.
On Thursday, the French prime minister, Jean Castex, appeared on television to warn the country that the situation was worsening and the population had to adhere to health and protection measures to avoid a return to the worst days of the epidemic in the spring.
In its weekly report, Santé Publique France said in week 38, 14-20 September, there had been an 25% rise in new deaths attributed to Covid-19 in hospitals and nursing homes. The number of new hospital admissions rose by 34% and new intensive care admissions by 40%.
In Paris, declared a zone of “heightened alert” on Wednesday, the regional hospital authorities warned that 20% of surgical operations would have to be postponed from this weekend because hospitals were “approaching saturation” with coronavirus cases.
In mainland France, 45 departments are above the 50 per 100,000 population number of confirmed cases and 16 above 100/100,000. In Paris, the number of confirmed infections had reached 217/100,000.
There was a rise in the virus among over-65s, while an examination of Covid-19 clusters showed most were in workplaces, followed by schools and universities and public and private events and gatherings.
All indicators in the report showed the curves rising again.
In spite of the worsening situation, the government’s decision to order the closure of bars and restaurants in Marseille and Aix-en-Provence, deemed a “maximum alert” zone, from Saturday continues to provoke the ire of local officials, bar and restaurant owners.
Bars in Paris and several other big towns and cities where the virus is circulating and hospitals are under increasing pressure have been ordered to close by 10pm from Monday.
The start of the French Open tennis tournament will go ahead on Sunday, but the number of spectators will be limited to 1,000, in keeping with Covid rules on other sporting events and public gatherings.
The number of deaths in France attributed to Covid-19 is now 31,511, an increase of 52 in the previous 24 hours, according to official figures.
The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, also sounded the alarm over a second wave of infections in the Netherlands. Rutte was speaking after yet another daily record of cases, which increased by 2,777 over the past 24 hours.
“The figures look downright terrible … In short, the situation is very worrisome and will force us to take extra measures,” he told journalists at a weekly press conference. He expects to announce the measures next week.
In Spain – which has now logged almost 720,000 cases – there has been more disunity and contradictory messaging from the central government and the regional government of Madrid.
Despite pledging to work together to improve the dire situation in and around the capital, the national and regional governments favour different strategies for tackling the rise in Madrid, which accounts for around a third of all Spain’s cases and deaths.
On Friday, the regional government rejected the central government’s calls for a city-wide return to lockdown, instead announcing that another eight areas in the region would be put into the partial lockdown already in force across 37 zones.
When the order comes into effect next Monday, more than a million people in the region will only be allowed to enter and exit their home zones on work, educational, legal or medical grounds. Public and private gatherings have been limited to six people and parks closed. The restrictions are being applied, among other considerations, to areas where there are more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 people.
But in a parallel press conference, Spain’s health minister urged more drastic action, saying that cities with more than 500 cases per 100,000 people should go into lockdown. By Friday evening, the Madrid region had recorded 721.73 cases per 100,000 people over the preceding fortnight.
The minister, Salvador Illa, also recommended an end to all unnecessary movement across the city, a ban on people eating and drinking at counters in bars and restaurants, and that the capacity at outside terraces be reduced to 50%.
On Thursday, Illa warned that “difficult weeks” lie ahead for Madrid and that a concerted effort was needed to stop the spread of the virus in Spain’s hardest-hit region. To date, Spain has logged 716,481 Covid cases – 132,749 of them diagnosed over the past two weeks – and 31,232 deaths.