Most EU states are tightening up but also working hard to avoid one more lockdown

Back in the mists of time, in the run-in to a major event, the Raidió Éireann newswriters would dust down a favourite cliché to impress the nation: “All garda leave has been cancelled!”

appily, we hear the phrase less frequently these days, although it still happens in times of great stress, usually in a more localised form. The term came to mind when reading the latest Covid news from mainland Europe.

It is one from the cold-comfort department – but Ireland’s story of soaring cases and a health service under severe pressure is mirrored everywhere in continental Europe. And in keeping with the times, in the Netherlands it is the virologists – not the police – who are talking about leave.

But those Dutch scientists want to extend rather than cancel the holidays over Christmas for schoolchildren. Yes, virologists in the Netherlands have proposed extending Christmas school holidays to slow a surge in Covid among children that has forced half of schools in this nation of 17 million people to send classes home.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Labour leader Alan Kelly, please take note. Park your personalised spat and both of you focus on the reality that keeping schools open is central to keeping a semblance of normality in time of Covid.

But that will be no easy task. Just ask any school principal.

The Dutch National Institute for Health this week reported a record of more than 110,000 cases through to last Tuesday. That’s an increase of 44pc from the week before, and the strongest rise was among children aged four to 12. Infections among children of primary-school age, five to nine, jumped almost 85pc and rose 76pc among children aged 10 to 14.

“Keeping primary schools closed for longer is an effective way to keep the virus under control. Children are virus factories and they infect adults as well as each other,” immunologist Ger Rijkers told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper.

Yet as with Ireland, not every Dutch expert thinks school closure is the way to go. And just like Ireland, the Netherlands has a high rate of vaccination, with 85pc of eligible adults fully jabbed.

So there is a shared Irish-Dutch sense of puzzlement about the soaring virus figures, which earlier this week were running at more than 20,000 cases per day. That is the Netherlands’ highest case rate so far, and has led to a shortage of Covid tests at health centres.

The latest wave began after the Dutch government ended social distancing and other measures in September. That decision has since been reversed, with caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte’s government reintroducing protective mask wearing in shops. They also re-imposed a partial lockdown, with most bars and restaurants now closed at 7pm.

Mr Rutte, who is locked in marathon coalition-making talks since an election on March 17, has also proposed excluding non-vaccinated people from a pass for indoor events, but this has faced opposition in parliament.

In Germany and Austria, where one in three people have not had even one dose of vaccine, the focus of the anti-Covid battle has now become “getting to the unvaxed”. A mix of doubts about vaccine efficacy and a rejection of dictats from central government are blamed.

A week ago, Austria said unvaccinated people were to be “locked down”, with serious fines for those who break the rules. But the latest news is that at least one of the Austrian provinces is now moving to a full lockdown.

Germany has also tried to isolate the unvaccinated by denying them social access and even work in some cases. Parts of Germany and Austria have limited access to restaurants, gyms, cinemas and sports arenas to those who are vaccinated or who can prove recent recovery from the virus. The rule allowing a recent negative test for access has been rescinded in many cases.

Researchers at pop-up vaccination centres in Germany have found this gambit is working, with those belatedly showing up for the jab admitting they had to avoid exclusion from mainstream life.

But for now, most EU states are relying on partial measures and hoping case numbers plateau out. Full lockdowns – for now – are being resisted.

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