Ireland Set for Tough Curbs as Europe Seeks to Control Virus

This content was published on October 19, 2020 - 10:48

(Bloomberg) -- Ireland is poised to introduce some of Europe’s toughest measures to curb the coronavirus as countries across the region battle to overcome the pandemic.

The Irish cabinet is due to meet on Monday to finalize the restrictions after health authorities recommended a move to the tightest lockdown tier. While the government may stop short of imposing a total shutdown, it has indicated that all non-essential stores, restaurants and bars could close.

“There is a big hit to the economy, and that has to be paid for,” Europe Minister Thomas Byrne said in an interview with broadcaster RTE on Monday. “It is incumbent on the government to consider every single ramification of this.”

Countries across Europe are toughening restrictions to fight the pandemic. Still, governments are grappling with the challenge of controlling the outbreak without inflicting lasting damage on their economies, prompting some to take different approaches.

In Belgium, the hardest-hit country in Europe behind the Czech Republic, all restaurants, bars and cafes in the country will remain closed for four weeks, starting on Monday. A curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. will also take effect. Italy, meanwhile, is clinging to the idea that incremental measures can be enough. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte late on Sunday drew the same conclusion as many of his counterparts: prioritize the economy.

“We must act, deploying all the measures necessary to avert a new generalized lockdown,” Conte said at news conference. “The country cannot afford a new setback which would severely jeopardize the whole economy.”

Trying to keep people Covid-free without limiting their personal freedom is something many nations are having a hard time squaring off in this less deadly wave of infections. When Italy’s new curbs fell short of the demands made by scientific experts, it showed Conte has become the latest leader trapped between competing interests, with local officials and central government clashing.

In London, rules took effect banning people from mixing with other households indoors, while in Paris and eight other French cities, residents must stay home between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. for four weeks. In Northern Ireland, schools have closed. German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week struggled to forge a consensus with regional premiers in a meeting that dragged on for eight hours, while Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has fought publicly with the president of the Madrid region over the correct strategy.

U.K. government officials on Monday continued to negotiate with local leaders in Manchester in an attempt to persuade them to accept the toughest restrictions.

Merkel’s Economy Minister, Peter Altmaier, said Germany will be sticking to a policy of targeting measures at localized outbreaks.

“A complete shutdown isn’t an option this time because in many sectors there are no problems,” Altmaier said Monday in an interview with ZDF television. “When we have very few infections for example in the auto industry or in retail, then you don’t achieve anything if you close down the shops or companies.”

After cases rose to a record above 7,000 last week, Germany recorded 4,007 new infections in the 24 hours through Monday morning, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Case numbers typically decline over the weekend and into the start of the following week.

Italy lags behind countries like Spain, France and the U.K. in terms of infections but its government too has succumbed to a series of political struggles -- with allies and the opposition, the medical advisers and the economic forecasters -- about what are the best steps to take.

What is certain is that there is little coordination between European partners. In Slovakia, every citizen has been promised a test. Switzerland will now require masks in public indoor spaces and has banned spontaneous public gatherings of more than 15 people.

The Czech Republic, which has the most cases per capita in Europe, has shut schools and will wait until the start of next month to assess the impact of its latest restrictions.

“We won’t be deciding about a lockdown this week,” Industry Minister Karel Havlicek said Sunday. “We said clearly that we’ll wait until Nov. 2 for the results.”

Several hundred people clashed with police in the center of Prague Sunday during a protest against the curbs, such as closing pubs and banning sporting events.

Toughest Curbs

Austria is limiting gatherings and tightening rules for professional events in an effort to avoid a second lockdown, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Monday. The limits on gatherings -- 6 people indoors and 12 outdoors -- will apply to everything “from restaurants to yoga classes,” starting on Friday, Kurz said.

The government in Slovakia on Sunday approved testing for all citizens for the disease next month, claiming it’s the only country to attempt it. “We aren’t able to handle the pandemic, let’s be honest,” Prime Minister Igor Matovic said. “This is a way out of hell which we are heading for.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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