Germany and France were bracing for new lockdowns on Wednesday as governments sought to stop the fast-rising tide of coronavirus cases that was beginning to fill European hospitals.
French markets opened lower on expectations that President Emmanuel Macron will announce tough measures during a televised evening address to the nation.
Doctors in France are calling on the government to impose a new nationwide lockdown, noting that more than half of the country’s intensive care units are now occupied by Covid-19 patients and medical staff are under increasing strain.
Most parts of France were coloured deep red on a map representing Covid-19 cases from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, signifying more than 240 cases per 100,000 people in the past two weeks.
On Tuesday, the country recorded an additional 523 deaths and another 33,417 new infections.
Belgium, the Netherlands, most of Spain and the Czech Republic are seeing similarly high rates of infection, while Germany was still coloured in orange – indicating that the average number of new cases there is still under 120 per 100,000 over the last 14 days.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was pressing governors of the country’s 16 states to quickly agree a partial lockdown that could include further restrictions on public gatherings and the closure of bars and restaurants.
The plan has caused anguish in Germany’s hospitality industry, with thousands of venue owners staging a protest at Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate to demand further financial support from the government.
Economists said further restrictions need to be carefully calibrated to avoid dealing a second severe blow to businesses.
Officials in Germany have cited the failure by authorities in the neighbouring Czech Republic to maintain their spring successes against coronavirus, saying they opened too widely in the summer.
The Czech Health Ministry said the country’s day-to-day case increase hit a new record high of 15,663 on Tuesday – as many as Germany which has eight times the population.
The Czech government has further tightened its regulations, imposing a nationwide curfew between 9pm and 6am that started on Wednesday.
It previously limited free movement, closed shops, schools and restaurants, made it mandatory to wear face masks indoors and outdoors and banned sport competitions, but the number of infections has continued to rise.
Sweden, which avoided a national lockdown and generally imposed far lighter measures than other European countries, is now urging people to avoid shopping centres and shops and stay away from public transportation.
The World Health Organisation said more than two million confirmed coronavirus cases were reported last week – the shortest time ever for such an increase.
It said for the second consecutive week, the European region accounted for the biggest proportion of new cases, with more than 1.3 million cases, or about 46% of the worldwide total.
The UN health agency said deaths were also on the rise in Europe, with around a 35% spike since the previous week.
Overall, Europe has seen more than 250,000 virus-related deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.