‘We’ve let our guard down’: Europe battles to contain new coronavirus surge

Relatives of COVID-19 victims in Bergamo, Italy
Relatives hold photos of COVID-19 victims outside a courthouse in June in Bergamo, Italy, where the coronavirus hit hard earlier this year.
(Antonio Calanni / Associated Press)

Public health officials across Europe are sounding the alarm over a resurgence of coronavirus cases as the continent’s countries ease lockdowns and international travel ramps up, with some experts warning that citizens have become too complacent.

The increase is marked in countries such as Spain, while Eastern Europe and the Balkans, which were largely spared the worst of the early pandemic, are seeing a steep increase in recorded cases.

Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, warned of a looming “second wave” of COVID-19 across Europe on Tuesday, while the head of Germany’s public health authority said: “We’ve let our guard down.”


Some governments are already taking measures to slow the spread. Britain has imposed quarantine on people returning from Spain, while Germany and France have ordered mandatory testing for travelers from high-risk areas, including the U.S.

Berlin is making the move as Germany, which thought it had successfully beaten back COVID-19, is experiencing a troubling rise in infections. There have been close to 4,000 new cases recorded in the past week.

Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s public health authority, said he was very concerned. “We don’t know if it’s the start of a second wave, but of course it could be.”

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Officials said the gradual lifting of restrictions on public life across the continent over the past couple of months had lulled people into a false sense of security. Many are no longer observing strict hygiene rules, wearing masks in public or maintaining social distancing.

The rising infection rates could be “quite strongly linked to the relaxation of lockdowns,” said Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist. But the speed of the uptick in parts of Europe has taken some experts by surprise.


“I thought we would see a lull during the summer,” said Arnold S. Monto, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. “I thought it would behave more like the flu than it has, and I didn’t think we would see these upsurges.”

Spain is one of the worst-affected countries. It recorded nearly 14,000 new cases in the week to July 26, with regional hotspots in Aragón, Catalonia and Navarra. The German foreign ministry advised on Tuesday against all nonessential travel to the three regions.

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France, which reported 6,325 cases in the past week, is another country where the public is becoming less cautious. “What is striking is that, in the past few weeks, the French have lost the notion of social distancing and caution,” Jean-François Delfraissy, the French government’s top scientific advisor, said last week.

Appealing to people’s sense of civic duty, he said: “[Our actions] will determine whether we have an epidemic that is manageable or if there are too many clusters that escape control.”

Tourists are a particular worry. Officials are concerned they are picking up the virus in crowded bars and nightclubs at resorts in countries such as Spain and spreading it among family and friends at home.

New restrictions are being brought in to deal with the upsurge in cases. Belgium moved Monday to toughen social distancing and urge teleworking after a spike around the city of Antwerp, where a curfew has been imposed.

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“What I find alarming is that we’re increasingly seeing outbreaks within families, among groups of friends, and that seems to be connected to people returning from high-risk areas,” Jens Spahn, Germany’s health minister, said Monday.

Some experts see troubling parallels with the situation in February and March, when the coronavirus began to spread exponentially across Europe. “All of a sudden the numbers have got bigger, but in fact they’ve been growing slowly over the past month or two,” said Graham Medley, professor of infectious diseases modeling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

“There isn’t a particular trigger — it’s just part of that process of exponential growth.”

Rafael Bengoa, a former health minister for Spain’s Basque country, blamed the new spike on outbreaks among seasonal farm workers, who live in crowded conditions and are often reluctant to be tracked.

The European Union on Tuesday issued a list of 14 countries whose citizens will be allowed back in as visitors, but the U.S. did not make the list.

June 30, 2020

Another factor was “the behavior of young people ... in discotheques and bars,” not only in Spain but also in Britain and France. “That’s creating a very negative situation,” he said. “They are assuming they won’t get infected.”

Germany had been praised for its success in containing the pandemic so far, but its crown has begun to slip. The number of new daily cases rose from about 500 in mid-July to 815 last Friday.

Previous surges were confined to specific locations such as meat-processing plants or nursing homes. But the latest are spread across the whole country. “We’re seeing a rise in cases in many different communities,” said Ute Rexroth, head of epidemiological surveillance at RKI. “It can be anywhere.”

Public health authorities have also expressed alarm at the big increase in infections in countries that weathered the early months of the pandemic relatively unscathed. Serbia has seen a big uptick, with more than 400 new cases a day. It imposed a draconian lockdown at the start of the pandemic but relaxed it before national elections last month.

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Romania is averaging about 1,000 new infections a day and recently overtook Poland to become the country with the highest number of confirmed cases in Central and Eastern Europe.

Some academics are arguing that the term “second wave” is more applicable to seasonal infectious diseases than COVID-19.

The notion, which has no scientific definition, derives from past influenza outbreaks — notably in 1918 and 2009 — when the disease almost disappeared in the summer and returned in autumn and winter, killing a greater number of people.

Researchers have been surprised by how little COVID-19 is responding to seasonal variations in temperature and behavior. “I wasn’t expecting it to increase in summer,” said Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia. A study from Japan found that the chances of getting the disease indoors were 19 times greater than outdoors, he noted.

Some say mutations in the influenza virus contributed to second waves by increasing virulence and transmissibility. Although there have been some mutations in the COVID-19 virus, no material changes have been observed.

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