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6th Jun 2020

Coronavirus

EU countries start delicate ease of lockdowns

  • Europeans should prepare themselves for months of restricted opening of shops and schools, mandatory facemasks and tracing apps (Photo: syed zaheer)

Austrians could visit hardware and gardening stores on Tuesday (14 April) among the thousands of shops that reopened for the first time since the shutdown on 16 March, imposed in a desperate effort to stop the coronavirus spread.

The stores, with less than 400 square meters, must limit the number of people inside, who are asked to wear face masks.

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One of the first countries to ease lockdown measures, Austria plans to reopen bigger stores on 2 May. The country has seen 384 deaths and 14,159 infections according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Centre.

Several EU countries have started easing restrictions with Italy allowing bookshops, stationers, and children's clothes stores to resume work.

Spain authorised construction and manufacturing to restart. Denmark is due to reopen schools on Wednesday, and Poland said it would ease restrictions on shops starting 19 April. German chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to discuss measures with state ministers on Wednesday.

Some EU countries are taking a different route.

In Belgium, the government will discuss on Wednesday a plan by an expert committee on loosening measures, but is expected to extend the confinement until 3 May.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced on Monday that the lockdown will remain in place until 11 May, but that a reopening of schools and shops would start after that.

Romania also extended confinement measures until 15 May.

Balancing act

EU governments are experimenting with a difficult balance between controlling the spread of the virus and restarting businesses to prevent further economic slump.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Tuesday estimated that the eurozone economies will shrink by 7.5 percent this year in the steepest downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and grow by 4.7 percent in 2021.

An easing of restrictions will, however, inevitably risk the resurgence of the pandemic in Europe, where so far more than 67,000 people died due to coronavirus.

Roadmap

The EU commission on Wednesday is set to roll out a set of recommendations for EU countries to better coordinate easing lockdown measures to avoid spillovers between member states.

While the EU executive cannot force member states to act in unison, it wants to make sure counties take into account the situations of neighbouring countries, according to a spokesperson.

The recommendations call for member states to notify each other and the commission before measures are loosened.

It warns that "any level of gradual relaxation" of measures will "unavoidably" mean increase in new coronavirus cases.

It argues for a gradual easing, starting small and local, with opening schools and universities, while restaurants and mass events should only allowed at a later stage. The EU's internal borders should open first before its external borders are accessible again.

The EU executive argues that three conditions should be met to ease restrictions: "the spread of the disease has significantly decreased for a sustained period of time", the health care system has sufficient capacity and there is effective monitoring including large-scale testing.

The commission also recommends contact tracing by the use of mobile apps, which should respect data privacy and should be voluntary.

German foreign minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday called for a single smartphone app to be used across the EU.

How long?

Countries should also be ready to revise their approach if more data comes in, or there is a risk of another wave in the spread of the virus, the comission says.

"We will have to live with the virus until a vaccine or treatment is found," the commission's document warns.

Belgian epidemiologist Marius Gilbert, who is part of the country's expert committee, estimated in an interview with the La Libre Belgique newspaper that "normal life" will not return for at least another six months after the strictest measures are lifted.

"When will we be able to go back to the way things were?," Macron said in his television address on Monday evening.

"In all honesty, in all humility, we don't have a definitive answer to that," he added.

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