Coronavirus infections are again sweeping across parts of western Europe, nearly two years into a global health crisis that has killed more than five million people.
World Health Organisation (WHO) official said coronavirus deaths rose by 10% in Europe in the past week, and declared that the continent was “back at the epicentre of the pandemic”.
Much of that is being driven by outbreaks in Russia and eastern Europe, but Germany and the UK are seeing high new case numbers. Even in countries with high vaccination rates, large numbers remain unvaccinated.
While nations in western Europe all have vaccination rates over 60% – and some like Portugal and Spain are much higher – that still leaves a significant portion of their populations without protection, and lockdowns are largely a thing of the past.
Dr Bharat Pankhania, senior clinical lecturer at Exeter University College of Medicine and Health, says that the large number of unvaccinated people combined with a widespread post-lockdown resumption of socialising and a slight decline in immunity for people who got their jabs months ago is driving up the pace of infections.
Thanks largely to vaccination, hospitals in western Europe are not under the same pressure they were earlier in the pandemic, but many are still straining to handle rising numbers of Covid patients while also attempting to clear backlogs of tests and surgeries with exhausted or sick staff.
Even the countries experiencing the most serious outbreaks in the region recorded far fewer deaths per person over the past four weeks than the United States did, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The question now is if countries can reduce this latest upswing without resorting to stringent shutdowns that devastated economies, disrupted education and weighed on mental health.
Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said: “I think the era of locking people up in their homes is over because we now have tools to control Covid – the testing, vaccines and therapeutics.
“So I hope people will do the things they have to do, like put on a mask.”
Many European countries now use Covid passes – proof of full vaccination, recovery from the virus or a negative test result – to access venues like bars and restaurants.
Dr Pankhania warned that the passes can give a false sense of security since fully vaccinated people can still get infected – though their chances of dying or getting seriously sick are dramatically lower.
German chancellor Angela Merkel said people have a duty to get vaccinated to protect others.
She spoke as Germany grapples with a new surge of infections, which reached a record daily high of 50,000 on Thursday.
In conversation with New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, Mrs Merkel said: “The virus is very, very tough.”
She added: “You have the right to get vaccinated. But, to a certain extent, you also, as a member of society, have the duty to be vaccinated to protect yourself and to protect others.”
The Dutch government is reportedly considering a limited two-week lockdown
The Netherlands announced the highest daily tally of new cases since the pandemic began, and hospitals are warning the situation could get worse, but officials are reluctant to clamp down too hard.
Amid these concerns, organisers in Utrecht said they could not in good conscience bring tens of thousands of people together to greet Santa at the annual Sinterklaas party beloved of children.
Austrian chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said this week that a lockdown for the unvaccinated is “probably unavoidable”, but he does not want to impose the measure on those who have received the jab.
Austria is seeing one of the most serious outbreaks in Western Europe, along with Germany, which has reported a string of record-high infections in recent days.
Spain, once one of Europe’s hardest-hit nations, perhaps offers an example of how the risks can be managed.
It has vaccinated 80% of its population, and while face masks are no longer mandatory outdoors, many people still wear them.
While infections have ticked up slightly recently, Rafael Bengoa, one of Spain’s leading public health experts, said that given the high vaccination rate, “the virus won’t be able to dominate us again”.