Covid Europe: Italy enters strict three-day lockdown while France begins four week national shutdown

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Italy and France entered strict lockdowns today, with both countries struggling to cope with a dramatic rise in Covid-19 cases that has overwhelmed hospitals. 

In Italy, the country entered a three-day Easter lockdown to prevent a surge in infections over the bank holiday weekend.

The entire country is now in the 'red zone' - the highest level of lockdown restrictions - after cases have soared to around 20,000 new cases a day in a devastating third wave of the pandemic. 

Across the border in France, authorities are also scrambling to deal with a dramatic rise in Covid-19 infections, with over 46,000 cases being recorded on Good Friday.   

The country today entered its third national lockdown for four weeks after French president Emmanuel Macron announced the move in an address to the nation on Wednesday night.   

In Italy, the country entered a three-day lockdown today to prevent a surge in infections over the bank holiday weekend. Pictured: People enjoyed the last day of freedom in Milan, Italy, on Friday before the country locked down

France entered a strict lockdown today for four weeks as the country struggles to cope with a dramatic rise in Covid-19 cases that has overwhelmed hospitals. Pictured: Medical staff work in the intensive care unit treat Covid-19 patients in Cambrai hospital on March 25

France has seen a dramatic increase in Covid-19 cases, which saw President Emmanuel Macron announce a strict lockdown

Italy is now in the 'red zone' - the highest level of lockdown restrictions - after cases have soared to around 20,000 new cases a day

All of mainland France is now under a 7 p.m. curfew, with working from home being expected for those than can, gatherings limited, non-essential shops closed and travel restrictions imposed. 

This brings the whole country in line with 19 virus hot-spot territories, and cities like Paris, which have had a limited lockdown imposed for the past two weeks.

Nurseries, schools, colleges and high school are also now closed for three weeks before a staggered reopening from April 26. 

The decision from Italy and France comes as a third wave of Covid-19 - blamed largely on the so-called 'British variant' of the virus - surges across Europe, and as countries face a race against time to vaccinate their populations. 

In Italy, non-essential travel is banned over their three-day Easter lockdown, but people are allowed to share a celebratory meal at home with two other adults. 

In Italy, non-essential travel is banned over their three-day Easter lockdown, but people are allowed to share a celebratory meal at home with two other adults. Pictured: Police stand at a checkpoint near the Colosseum in Rome today

Pope Francis lies down in prayer prior to celebrate Good Friday Mass for the Passion of the Lord at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, April 2

At the Vatican on Good Friday, a handful of onlookers caught a glimpse of Pope Francis presiding over the 'Way of the Cross' ceremony in an empty St. Peter's Square, with Covid-19 restrictions preventing large gatherings there for a second year in a row. 

Following the Easter weekend, different regions across Italy will remain in either 'red zone' or 'orange zone' restrictions until the end of April.

As a result of the increasing number of cases, both France and Italy's hospitals are struggling with an increase of ICU admissions for Covid-19.  

In Italy, 39 per cent of ICU beds are now being used by patients with Covid-19 nationally, which is over the critical threshold.

The British variant of the disease has accounted for an increase in cases across Italy and France.

The coast of Ostia is largely deserted today amid the new lockdown restrictions in Rome

In Italy, 39 per cent of ICU beds are now being used by patients with Covid-19 nationally, which is over the critical threshold. Pictured: Health workers in ICU of the San Filippo Neri hospital in Rome on March 22

In Lombarday, a highly populated region of Northern Italy which has been hard hit by the pandemic, the British variant accounts for more than 50 per cent of the infections. 

'The virus has, at all times, been able to catch us unprepared,' Robert Fumagalii, the head of anesthesia and intensive care at the Niguarda Metropolitan Hospital in Milan, told Healio

'We did not expect variants to have such an impact, sparking a new surge of infections even more difficult to control.'  

Meanwhile in France, special medical planes dispatched patients from overrun Paris intensive care units to less saturated regions earlier this month due to a spike in Covid-19 cases.

The country reported on Friday that 5,254 people with Covid-19 were in intensive care units, which is an increase of 145 people in one day - the highest daily increase in five months.

With new infections rising sharply, doctors expect the third wave of the virus will peak in the coming two weeks, with a further increase in ICU numbers. 

Special medical planes dispatched patients from overrun Paris intensive care units to less saturated regions earlier this month

'We feel this wave coming very strongly,' said Romain Beal, a blood oxygen specialist at the Amiens-Picardie Hospital in Amiens.

'We had families where we had the mother and her son die at the same time in two different ICU rooms here. It's unbearable.' 

Professor Philippe Juvin from Paris's Georges Pompidou hospital said last week that a strict lockdown may be the only way to prevent a major healthcare crisis. 

Juvin told French TV that hospitals risked being overwhelmed to the point where they could neither treat Covid-19 patients nor others. 

'The situation is critical,' added Juvin, who is also the mayor of La Garenne-Colombes in the Paris region. 

Few passengers wait at the Saint-Lazare rail station in Paris today amid new travel restrictions

France entered a third national lockdown for four weeks today after French president Emmanuel Macron announced the measures in an address to the nation on Wednesday night, expanding current measures in 19 territories to the whole country. Pictured: Macron seen on TV on Wednesday night

The risk of emergency wards being unable to cope was one of the main reasons for Macron to order the third nationwide lockdown this week, after unsuccessfully trying for months to contain the epidemic with a curfew and regional lockdowns.

'The epidemic is accelerating, and we are likely to lose control, so we must find a new way of reacting. We must therefore set ourselves a new framework for the coming months,' the head of state said during the dramatic address on Wednesday evening. 

The 43-year-old blamed the 'British variant' for creating 'a pandemic inside a pandemic' that was more contagious and 'more deadly.'

This meant the situation had changed since he was resisting calls for another lockdown amid spiralling infections, despite experts urging him to act sooner.

'We are faced with a new situation,' he said. 'We are involved in a race. Propagation of a new variant that was identified by our British neighbours must be dealt with.'   

Current efforts to limit the virus 'were too limited at a time when the epidemic is accelerating'. The spread of the variant meant 'we risk losing control', he added. 

'With regards to schools, we've all got to be aware of our responsibilities as far as our youth are concerned,' said Mr Macron. 'We've kept them open since September 2020, but this will now change.' 

The president said non-essential shops would remain shut, along with businesses such as cafes, bars, and restaurants. 

Under the restrictions, people are allowed to go outside for leisure, but only within a 6 miles radius from their homes - and without gathering. 

On Friday, new confirmed cases jumped by the highest week-on-week rate since the end of November, when France was in its second nationwide lockdown.

The ministry reported 46,677 new cases, 6.2% more than a week ago, taking the total to 4.74 million cases.

Striking a more optimistic tone for the medium term, Macron said some cultural venues and cafe terraces would reopen in mid-May 'under strict rules' and a calendar drawn up for a progressive reopening of other facilities.

'Thanks to the vaccine, the way out of the crisis is emerging,' he said.

He also announced that the vaccine drive would be open to all those over 60 from April 16 and those over 50 from May 15. 

The lockdown represents an embarrassing U-turn for Mr Macron, who ignored a call from his scientific advisers to introduce a tougher lockdown at the end of January. 

But the French president took a gamble on curfews and local restrictions in the hope of giving the economy a chance to recover from a deep slump. 

Europe has been struggling with increasing Covid-19 cases amid a slow-start with vaccine rollouts.

Germany's president Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the country is enduring a 'crisis of trust' and urged people to 'pull together' and put aside 'constant indignation over others or over people in high places'. 

In the speech, set to be broadcast on Saturday, conceded that 'there were mistakes' regarding testing, digital solutions and vaccinations. 

Germany's president Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the country is enduring a 'crisis of trust' and urged people to 'pull together'

'I know that you, the citizens, are doing your part in this historic crisis,' he says. 'You have done much and you have gone without much.'

'Your expectation for those in government is, 'Get it together'.'   

He said that vaccine deliveries would increase sharply in the coming weeks, Europe was building up its production capacities, and general practitioners would join the vaccination effort in addition to large vaccine centers.

'The truth is, we're not world champion, but we're not a failure either,' he said.

Germany, along with the European Union as a whole, has lagged behind the U.S. and the U.K. in the speed of its vaccination effort amid slower procurement of vaccines and complaints about excessive bureaucracy and paperwork.  

Meanwhile, Italy has said it aims to have 80 per cent of the population vaccinated against Covid-19 by the end of September.  

Premier Mario Draghi's office earlier this month announced more goals of the national vaccination program, which only recently has started picking up its pace after delays in vaccine deliveries and other logistics slowdowns.

Doses of AstraZeneca Covid vaccines are delivered in Rome, Italy. Regional Affairs Minister Mariastella Gelmini said on Friday that Italy set a new record of over 300,000 Covid vaccinations yesterday

Just over three million people in Italy - or roughly 5 per cent of the population - had been vaccinated as of Friday.  

But while the Italian government have said it will prioritise vaccines for health care workers, people aged 80 years or older, the vulnerable and disabled as well as teachers and military personally, the reality has been different. 

That's because regions have developed their own vaccination plans which have sparked controversy and caused delays in the rollout. 

'Some regions have prioritised other categories, such as lawyers and judges whereas other regions have proposed the vaccination of the working population first,' Patrizia Laurenti, professor of hygiene and preventive medicine, told Healio. 

'There has been heated discussion, but the government has firmly reasserted that priority should be given to the most vulnerable categories.'

In Tuscany, people over 80 watched in disbelief and indignation as lawyers, magistrates, professors and other younger professionals got vaccinated against COVID-19 before them.

By one estimate, the failure to give shots to the over-80s and those in fragile health has cost thousands of lives in a country with Europe's oldest population and its second-highest loss of life in the pandemic. 

As the elderly were elbowed aside, a dozen prominent senior citizens in Tuscany published a letter calling out the authorities, including the region's governor, for what they said was a violation of their health care rights enshrined in the Italian Constitution. 

'We asked ourselves, 'What's the reason for this disparity?'' said signatory Enzo Cheli, a retired constitutional court judge who is a month shy of 87. By late March, he still hadn't been vaccinated, three months into Italy's inoculation campaign.

'The appeal was born of this idea that errors were being made, abuses,' Cheli said. He noted that investigations are underway in Tuscany and other regions where professionals received priority status. 

Those over 80 in Tuscany have the lowest vaccination rate nationally.

Another signatory was 85-year-old editorial cartoonist Emilio Giannelli, who hasn't been vaccinated, while his son, a lawyer, has.

A Giannelli cartoon appeared on the front page of Corriere della Sera depicting a young man in a business jacket kicking an old man leaning on a cane out of a vaccine line.

Police check people who are travelling during the first day of a strict lockdown in Rome today

In a country where many citizens have learned not to count on often weak national governments, outsize influence is wielded by lobbying groups, sometimes derided as 'castes.'

Premier Mario Draghi has decried such 'contractual clout,' saying last month that the 'basic line is the need to vaccinate the most fragile people and the over-80s.' 

His government insists that vaccinations proceed in descending order by age, with the only exceptions being school and university employees, security forces, prison personnel and inmates, and those in communal residences such as convents.  

Throughout the pandemic, the oldest Italians have made up the majority of deaths, and not just in Tuscany.  

Of Italy's 4.4 million residents 80 or older, fewer than 29% had been vaccinated, and another 27% had gotten only the first dose by the end of March, said the GIMBE foundation, which monitors health care in Italy.

That compares with 95% of that age group in Malta who have received at least one dose, and 85% in Finland, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

In Britain, where the vaccine rollout began roughly a month before the EU's, most of the over-50s have received at least one dose. 

France is also well behind countries such as Britain in its vaccine roll out, especially after a series of U-turns by Mr Macron over the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab.

He at first said it was not suitable for those over 65, before announcing that it should not be given to those under 55.

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