By Francois Murphy
VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria on Saturday announced a nighttime curfew and the closure of cafes, bars and restaurants to all but take-away service as a surge in coronavirus infections threatens to overwhelm its hospitals.
The Alpine country had a swift and effective lockdown during its first wave of infections in March but had held off similar action this month to help the economy, even as daily cases rose to several times the spring peak.
With daily infections at a record 5,627 on Friday, however – just short of the 6,000 level at which the government says hospitals will no longer cope – the conservative-led government was forced to act.
“We did not take this decision lightly but it is necessary,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a news conference. The restrictions include an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and will be in effect from Tuesday until the end of November.
Factories, shops, kindergartens and primary schools will remain open, however, while secondary schools and universities will switch to distance learning. Exercise or walks will still be allowed after curfew.
Restaurants, bars and cafes may provide a take-away service only; theatres and museums will shut, as will indoor sports facilities such as gyms; hotels will close to all but a few guests such as business travellers.
Businesses forced to close will receive aid amounting to 80% of their sales a year earlier.
In the past two weeks, Austria had about as many cases as Britain or Italy, relative to its population, data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) shows. And there has been a rapid acceleration over the past week, with a 26% jump from Thursday to Friday.
“A barely controllable increase has begun,” Health Minister Rudolf Anschober told the news conference, adding that infections were “de facto exploding”.
Austria’s measures closely resemble those being taken by neighbouring Germany, which has less than half its infection rate, according to the ECDC data.
Austria has already limited private indoor gatherings to six people and it is now adding a rule that no more than two households can meet.
“We can’t say how strongly the population will support these measures and how strong their effect will be,” Kurz said, adding that he aimed to start easing the restrictions gradually in December.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Ros Russell)
For Germany, the breaking point could come in December. France and Switzerland might crack by mid-November. Belgium could hit its limit by the end of the week.
Europe, in the throes of a savage second wave of the pandemic, is on the verge of a medical crisis, with intensive care units quickly filling to the breaking point. Governments are finding that when confronted by the unforgiving reality of an exponentially spreading virus, even vast investments to expand hospital capacity can be washed away in days.
Germany, Europe’s best-resourced nation, risks being swamped even after increasing its intensive care beds by a quarter over the summer. Belgium, which had doubled its intensive care capacity, is now preparing for decisions about which needy patient should get a bed.
“This huge capacity we’ve built gave a false impression of security. It gave a higher buffer, but ultimately it only represents a week when you’re in an exponential phase,” said Emmanuel André, a leading Belgian virologist who has advised the government on the pandemic — and has bitterly criticized leaders for acting too slowly this fall.
In retrospect, the warning signs could be seen as early as July, when cases in Europe started ticking up again after the relaxation of spring lockdowns. In absolute terms, the numbers were still tiny. Spanish emergency room doctors enjoyed a respite, after being hammered in March and April. Italian nurses headed to the beach. Central European leaders — among the worst hit now, but back then largely untouched — gathered at the end of August for a triumphant conference to discuss the post-pandemic era.
But the math for exponential growth is as simple as it is scary. When two coronavirus cases double to four, and four cases double to eight, it doesn’t take long for the numbers to reach the tens of thousands — and beyond.
[Gloom settles over Europe as days darken and coronavirus surges]
“An exponential phenomenon starts with very small numbers, and it is not tangible for weeks and weeks and weeks for people out there,” André said. “If you look at the numbers, you have very strong indicators early on that things are going wrong, but it is only at the very end that things explode.”
Europe is now feeling the explosion.
The continent reported 1.5 million cases over the past week, the highest yet during the pandemic, the World Health Organization’s Europe director, Hans Kluge, told an emergency meeting of health ministers on Thursday. Deaths rose by a third in seven days. Occupancy of intensive care units doubled in 17 days leading up to Oct. 25 in countries tracked by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
“Europe is at the epicenter of this pandemic once again,” Kluge said.
A week ago, French intensive