Several European countries expand COVID curbs; France ‘critical’

Several European countries have tightened measures to stem the spread of coronavirus in the face of a worrying rise in infections that is putting further pressure on healthcare systems.

In France, the government on Saturday described the situation as “critical” as it added three more departments to the 16 already under tight restrictions.

Some 20 million people, including those in the greater Paris region, are classed as living in high-infection zones. They are not allowed to travel further than 10km (six miles) from their home unless they have an essential reason.

Officers at train stations, airports and toll-paying motorways began on Saturday to enforce the travel restrictions. Only shops selling food, and book and music stores are open and classrooms in high schools are only running at half the capacity.

Daily cases in France have nearly doubled since the start of March, with more than 200,000 new infections registered every week. On Saturday, it reported another 42,619 daily cases, up from 41,869 on Friday.

The number of patients in intensive care units rose on Saturday to the highest this year, according to health ministry data.

A French police officer patrols on the Promenade des Anglais during the third lockdown imposed to slow the rate of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) contagion, in Nice [Eric Gaillard/Reuters]

Belgium, meanwhile, closed all businesses involving non-medical physical contact such as hairdressers for four weeks from Saturday.

Shops offering “non-essential” services can only receive clients with appointments.

For its part, Poland closed creches, playgrounds, furniture stores, as well as beauty salons and barbershops. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki urged people to spend the upcoming Easter holiday at home with their immediate families, but stopped short of announcing restrictions on movement and a full lockdown.

And in Hungary, a record rise of infections and deaths has kept it from loosening lockdown measures, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said.

Hospitals are under “extraordinary” pressure in Hungary, a hotspot as the pandemic hits Central Europe especially hard.

People wearing protective face masks walk in downtown Budapest, after the Hungarian government imposed a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) [File: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters]

Health officials have rolled out more than 510 million coronavirus vaccine doses around the world, but with big gaps between countries.

The World Health Organization on Friday appealed to richer nations to donate vaccines to help poorer ones start inoculations.

But rich European Union countries are still struggling to get their inoculations into overdrive. However, the bloc is expecting to be the world leader in producing vaccines by the end of the year, with 52 factories taking part in the process across the continent, according to declarations by European Union Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton.

Breton said Europe should have vaccinated enough people in the European summer, possibly around mid-July, to achieve a “global immunity” level.

By the end of the year, Europe should have the capacity to produce between two and three billion doses, the commissioner said on Friday, at the Barcelona plant of pharmaceutical company Reig Jofre which will produce Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine in the second quarter of the year.

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