More than 40 per cent of EU residents are now facing life under far-reaching coronavirus-related controls as national leaders battle to limit the accelerating spread of the virus.
The announcement of new restrictions in countries including Ireland, Spain, Poland and the Czech Republic on Thursday brought the number of people affected by planned or imposed measures to well over 190m, according to Financial Times analysis.
Controls resulting in significant changes to everyday lives have centred on the closure of public spaces such as schools, universities and government buildings but they extend to Italy’s decision to quarantine its entire population.
Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar ordered the closure of Ireland’s schools, colleges and childcare facilities from 6pm on Thursday, while in Spain schools, universities and public events were being shut down across a broadening swath of the country.
Poland said it would introduce a state of epidemic threat, which gives the government the power to temporarily limit certain types of movement.
Slovakia declared a state of emergency, banning visits to hospitals and social care facilities and ordering the weekend closure of all shopping malls, excluding food stores and pharmacies.
The previous day Denmark had announced the closure of all its schools, kindergartens and universities.
In total 21,953 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the EU, with 946 deaths.
The measures aimed at curbing the spread of the disease are having far-reaching effects on the economies as well as individual workers, triggering warnings that Europe is now heading into a severe recession. The wide divergence between the types and scale of measures taken by different governments underscores a lack of any overarching strategy or co-ordination.
Maria Demertzis, deputy director of the Bruegel think-tank in Brussels, said the bloc faced a “mammoth challenge.”
“We are not one country, and the bulk of the responsibilities are still with national governments,” she said. “Europe does find it difficult to move forward, but it has shown in the past that it is capable of dealing with crises.”
The policies affecting people’s regular lives are distinct from a range of other targeted measures, including requirements on people arriving from heavily hit countries such as Italy or China to go into quarantine.
A wide range of countries including Sweden and France have also restricted large gatherings of people. Estonia’s prime minister has banned cruise ships from docking and events of more than 100 people, for example, while Finland’s government is preparing to introduce its first restrictions on events.
In Spain, Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia all announced on Thursday that schools will be closed, following similar measures taken by Madrid.
Madrid accounts for just under half of Spain’s roughly 2,200 cases of coronavirus and more than 30 people in the region have died from the virus. “The population should know that health professionals forecast that this weekend we will have a significant rise in the number of infected people,” Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the head of the regional government, said on Wednesday night. “They calculate that the worst of the spread of the virus will take place in the next three weeks.”
France has said it does not favour a complete shutdown of the country or the closure of borders and is instead targeting vulnerable regions and institutions to slow the spread of the pandemic.
However, President Emmanuel Macron is due to address the nation at 8pm local time on Thursday and may announce more draconian restrictions as France enters the third and most difficult phase of handling the epidemic: a concerted effort to avoid a sharp peak in hospital cases that could overwhelm the health system.
The government has banned meetings of more than 1,000 people and told people to stop visiting old people’s homes. Schools are closed in various parts of the country, including the Oise department north of Paris where the first cluster of the disease emerged in France.
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The German government has opted not to impose mandatory restrictions, quarantines or compulsory social distancing. Authorities have, however, recommended the cancellation of all events attended by more than 1,000 people, and most of Germany’s 16 states have followed this advice. The upshot is that most Bundesliga matches are now being played without spectators.
While there have not been any large-scale school closures, the east German city of Halle, home to 230,000 people, said that from Friday all schools and day-care centres will be closed until March 27.
Measures in Germany’s neighbour Poland have been more draconian. All schools will be closed from Monday for two weeks and mass events cancelled. Cultural institutions such as museums, cinemas and operas have been shut. Health controls are in operation at borders having been expanded from frontiers with Germany and the Czech Republic to eastern and southern borders as well. All flights from Poland to Italy are cancelled.
Asked on Thursday for the EU’s advice on school closures, a European Commission spokesman pointed to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an EU agency. “The ECDC is closely monitoring the situation and providing risk assessments guidelines and also guidelines in the context of social distancing,” the spokesperson said. “They are the specialists and know what guidance is most appropriate in these times.”
The UK, which recently left the EU, has so far taken a less aggressive approach to the outbreak and eschewed any hard moves to limit people’s movements. However, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce new measures on Thursday after an emergency planning meeting.
Sam Fleming and Jim Brunsden in Brussels, Victor Mallet in Paris, Guy Chazan in Berlin, Daniel Dombey in Madrid, Richard Milne in Helsinki, James Shotter in Warsaw, and Valerie Hopkins in Budapest
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