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28 Nov 2020 18:30
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  •   Home > News > International

    'Half-measures don't work': Lockdown no longer a dirty word in COVID-weary Europe

    After a summer of excess, European countries are turning to strict national lockdowns in an effort to stop the fast-rising tide of coronavirus cases sweeping the continent.

    When German bombs started falling on London in 1940, Winston Churchill's advisers predicted most people would flee their homes.

    They were wrong.

    "What they discovered is that people preferred to be at home," said Edgar Jones, who studies the way the public responds to external threats.

    Professor Jones, an expert in the history of medicine at King's College London, said Boris Johnson's Government made the same mistake of misjudging the public's resolve when the COVID-19 pandemic first took hold.

    "They underestimated greatly people's abilities to go home and stay home," he told the ABC.

    For months, governments across Europe have tried to spare their citizens another lockdown, instead imposing restrictions that have damaged livelihoods without significantly reducing infection rates.

    It's a 'worst of both worlds' scenario that risks wearing down the public's patience, according to Professor Robert West, an expert in health psychology at University College London who also advises the UK Government.

    "The half-measures... don't seem to work," he told the ABC.

    "[People] have got to feel like they're doing something that's actually going to make a difference."

    This week, Europe's most populous nations, Germany and France, both succumbed to pressure and imposed new national lockdowns, following earlier leads from the Republic of Ireland and Wales.

    They're likely to make progress against the pandemic, but it won't come without pain.

    Lockdowns are 'brutal brakes', but they're effective

    Like most European countries, France added layer upon layer of restrictions in the hope of avoiding another lockdown.

    Masks, bar closures and 9pm curfews were among the strategies adopted, but none adequately slowed the infection rate.

    "In France, we undertook a gradual response, but maybe a bit too late," said Thibault Fiolet, a doctoral researcher in public health at University Paris-Saclay.

    On Thursday, France recorded 47,637 new cases, an increase of more than 10,000 cases from the day before, and an additional 235 deaths were reported.

    Mr Fiolet said half the intensive care beds in Paris were already occupied by COVID-19 patients.

    "Modelling shows that we could reach 100 per cent by mid-November, so it's quite dramatic," he told the ABC.

    With that in mind, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a one-month national lockdown on Wednesday, describing it as a "brutal brake".

    "All of Europe is surprised by the speed of the spread of the virus," Mr Macron said.

    On Friday, Spain reported a record 25,595 cases while on Thursday Sweden, which has shunned lockdowns, also reported an all-time high of 2,820.

    "We are all in the same position: overrun by a second wave which we know will be harder, more deadly than the first," Mr Macron said.

    Britons support a short, sharp lockdown

    Boris Johnson's Government has resisted imposing another national lockdown, hoping that a complex patchwork of regional restrictions like pub closures and bans on gatherings will keep a lid on the virus.

    However, case numbers tell a different story.

    There were 24,405 new infections recorded on Friday, along with 274 more deaths.

    And a study from Imperial College London estimated that nearly 100,000 people are being infected every day in England, with cases doubling every nine days.

    "We do need to do something, because at the moment the virus is rapidly increasing," the study's author, Professor Paul Elliot, said.

    A recent poll conducted by YouGov, found that 68 per cent of Britons would support a two-week "circuit breaker" lockdown, which is being proposed by the Labour opposition to arrest the surge of infections.

    It was also recommended by the UK Government's own scientific advisory group.

    Professor Jones said the simplicity of the circuit-breaker lockdown may make it attractive to those who are tired of navigating complex restrictions.

    "You know when you go in, you know when you come out. You can plan it and it applies to everyone," he said.

    It could also give the UK's test-and-trace scheme a chance to catch up.

    While nearly 300,000 tests are being processed daily, just 60 per cent of close contacts of coronavirus cases are being traced and told to self-isolate.

    The 'dark side' of lockdowns

    After Italy was devastated by the first wave of COVID-19, it managed to keep case numbers relatively low over the European summer.

    However, numbers have risen rapidly in recent weeks and on Friday it reported a record 31,084 new daily cases and 199 new deaths.

    "In summer, young people started to party, to go to discos ... and so we got a huge number of young people contaminated," said Professor Stefano Nava, Chief of Respiratory and Critical Care at Bologna's Sant' Orsola hospital — the biggest in Italy.

    Professor Nava said young people inadvertently gave the virus to their older relatives and now 90 per cent of his critical care beds are full.

    "The curve is ramping up faster than in late February, early March," he told the ABC.

    "It's going to be a real mess in the next few weeks."

    So far, the Italian Government has resisted imposing another national lockdown on its citizens, instead opting to introduce more targeted measures like curfews and capacity restrictions on public transport.

    Professor Nava said the restrictions weren't adequate, but he conceded tighter measures would create economic misery that could push many people into poverty.

    "Locking down everything has a dark side," he said.

    "It's an ethical dilemma."

    Fiery protests have been held in cities including Naples, Turin and Milan, suggesting a new national lockdown won't go uncontested in Italy.

    'We're in a dramatic situation'

    Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel was heckled by right-wing politicians in Parliament as she defended the country's newly announced lockdown on Thursday.

    Restaurants, bars, theatres and gyms will close on Monday, for one month.

    Schools will remain open, but social interactions will be limited to two households.

    Ms Merkel said she understood the "frustration and desperation" of people who have abided by restrictions that have not achieved the desired results.

    Germany reported a record 16,774 cases on Thursday and Ms Merkel said the case numbers would soon become unmanageable.

    "[The cases] will overload our intensive care units in just a few weeks from now," she said.

    "We're in a dramatic situation."

    However, she tried to assure Germans that their collective sacrifices would be worth it.

    "It is this society with its empathy and solidarity that gives me hope of getting through this," she told Parliament.

    "The winter will be hard — four long, hard months — but it will end."

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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