Europe is looking to keep the COVID-19 pandemic from ruining the Christmas holidays.
From allowing sales of traditional carp in the Czech Republic to the prospects of Irish pubs reopening, the continent is exploring ways to let people celebrate without reigniting the pandemic. Leaders will be laying out plans for the holiday season in the coming days.
After weeks of strict restrictions on contact, Europe has slowed the rapid spread of the disease, but hospitals remain stretched and authorities are wary of repeating the mistakes that led to a resurgence of infections in the fall. That means steps to ease curbs will be controlled and incremental.
“We will make a proposal for a gradual and coordinated approach to lifting containment measures,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last week. “This will be very important to avoid the risk of yet another wave.”
With long winter months still to come, leaders will be under pressure to get the mix right. Any loosening risks more sickness and death, but voters are getting tired of restrictions all the same — police in Berlin last week had to roll out water cannons to break up protest against the latest lockdown.
Here’s the latest on the fight for Christmas from across Europe:
Europe’s largest economy is moving toward extending and tightening its shutdown restrictions until Dec. 20, including further limits on private gatherings, according to a proposal from state leaders. Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet with the country’s 16 state premiers on Wednesday to agree on a plan, which could include a ban on firework sales for New Year’s Eve.
Boris Johnson’s government is looking at ways to ease restrictions for a few days over the holiday period so that families can get together. Universities have been given access to mass testing so that students can be allowed to travel home safely. In England, a tiered system of regional restrictions is due to go into place again on Wednesday to replace the current lockdown, but it will be stricter than the measures prior to the economic closure on Nov. 5.
“We’re all working together to try to get an agreed set of rules for Christmas,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told LBC Radio on Monday.
On Tuesday evening, French President Emmanuel Macron detailed a very gradual end of the second lockdown, with two priorities: avoiding a third wave and supporting retailers in the final weeks before Christmas. Shops, beyond food retailers, hope to be allowed to re-open around Tuesday, with the domestic version of “Black Friday” postponed to Dec. 6. Restaurants and bars are to remain shut for the holiday season with confinement measures and travel limitations in place for some time.
The government is drafting a decree to control social contact until the New Year, and officials are considering pushing back the curfew until 11pm to allow people more time for buying gifts, according to the Corriere della Sera.
“Italians will need to prepare for a sober Christmas, with no big parties, hugs and kisses, as one week of unrestrained social gatherings would lead to a sharp steepening of the pandemic curve with more deaths and pressure on ICUs,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said last week. “The country cannot afford that.”
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez warned that this Christmas “will be different,” saying the priority is to “avoid a third wave.” As infections fall, a plan is in the works with some regions already moving ahead. Catalonia is reopening bars and restaurants.
After emerging as the worst outbreak in western Europe, Belgium has slowed the spread. The government will discuss relaxing restrictions for Christmas in a meeting on Friday. Under current lockdown rules, Belgians can invite only a single person per family into their homes. Singles are allowed two contacts, but not at the same time.
The hard-hit eastern European country will allow sales of Christmas trees and live carp — the traditional Czech holiday meal — from tanks in the streets, according to Health Minister Jan Blatny. Most shops, including shopping malls, may open as early as Monday so that people can buy presents, with authorities acknowledging heavy pressure to ease restrictions. “Christmas is naturally an important factor,” Blatny said in a Sunday television appearance. “As for me, it’s rather spiritual celebration of peace and calm, but for many people, it’s essentially about shopping and that’s how they show love for their fellows.”
Prime Minister Micheal Martin has said Christmas will be different no matter exactly how restrictions are relaxed. In an interview at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, he confirmed Ireland will exit its tightest shutdown level as planned early next month. The details are still being worked out, but it seems clear non-essential retailers such as toy stores will be allowed to reopen. The main battleground is over whether restaurants and bars will be allowed start operating again. Regardless of how it all works out, it will be different from normal and not everyone will be “on the lash for Christmas,” the premier said.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz — who had made good on a pledge during the spring lockdown to ensure a “resurrection after Easter” — is now aiming to “rescue Christmas” from the country’s second lockdown, which kicked in only when new infections had soared to among the highest worldwide. Austria plans to roll out mass testing for the entire population shortly before the holiday. The government has ordered 7 million rapid tests from Siemens AG and Roche Holding AG and will rely on the army and local authorities for the organization.
The government has warned the country not to give itself a third wave as a Christmas present. Prime Minister Mark Rutte underlined the cautious stance on Saturday, when he said that easing restrictions during the Christmas holidays with “the current numbers will be difficult.” While new daily cases have fallen from peak levels, the decline has slowed in recent days, a trend that worries Dutch authorities.
Prime Minister Janez Jansa has said that some restrictions will still be in place on Christmas, yet voiced his hopes that they won’t be as strict as the current restrictions, which include a curfew from 9pm to 6 am and the closure of schools and non-essential services. Dissatisfaction with the government is on the rise, with approval ratings the lowest in two years, and opposition parties are pushing for a no-confidence vote.
Premier Igor Matovic is pushing a plan to screen the entire population with rapid antigen tests in December to allow the government to ease restrictions before Christmas. The predominantly Catholic country was the first nation in the world to carry out blanket screening this month and uncovered a 1.1 percent infection rate. For now, restaurants and schools remain closed.
Prime Minister Antonio Costa has said he wants to try to contain the pandemic while avoiding the tougher confinement measures adopted in March and April, when schools were shut. Portugal will limit movement between municipalities from tomorrow to Monday and Dec. 5 to Dec. 8 — two weekends include national holidays on the following Tuesday.
Schools, hotels, restaurants and fitness centers are set to remain closed until Dec. 27, while tomorrow shopping malls will be reopened, with restrictions on a number of people allowed in stores. The government plans to ease or tighten the current lockdown in three weeks. Poles were asked to stay home over Christmas, and the government is working on legal ways to limit travel over the period.
While Greece’s second national lockdown was scheduled to end on Tuesday, plans to begin a gradual lifting of restrictions on that date are no longer realistic, according to a government spokesman. Christmas this year will not be like celebrations of the past, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said last week. Whether there is a total ban on movement, depends on reducing infection rates and relieving pressure on the health-care system, he said.
The government’s state of emergency — which limited shop hours and the size of public gatherings — is set to expire on Dec. 6, but if the current rate of infections continues, the health-care sector is expected to be overwhelmed within a month, according to local media. More measures may be coming.
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