Fear over rising Covid cases in Spain and Italy as northern wave heads south

·4 min read
A man walks past a closed down business during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Madrid - REUTERS/Susana Vera/File Photo
A man walks past a closed down business during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Madrid - REUTERS/Susana Vera/File Photo

Coronavirus cases are on the rise in parts of southern Europe after weeks of relatively low numbers, as soaring infection rates in more northerly countries are being met with lockdown measures.

In the last week, Spain and Italy have seen daily cases rise by more than a third and 20 per cent, to 208 per million and 218 per million respectively.

In Italy, 17,030 cases were reported on Friday, the highest since April. France, too, has seen a big rise in cases in the last week - from 378 per million to 545 per million.

Just a month ago, Spain was in a reasonably comfortable position. The country has a high vaccine uptake and adherence to mask-wearing rules, and had circumvented the debate about restrictions that roiled so many other countries.

“As far as vaccines go, in Spain there’s just a wide consensus among citizens - they follow the recommendations of the scientists,” said Salvador Illa, Spain’s former health minister.

While their cases remain far below recent peaks in the UK and more northern European countries such as Austria and the Netherlands, the uptick in cases has worried experts.

Professor Martin McKee, European public health professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “It’s still well below the UK [where cases are at 651 per million] but it’s not going in the right direction. It is not looking good.”

He said the onset of colder weather in southern Europe, prompting indoor socialising, could be behind the rise in cases.

At the same time, restrictions and lockdowns imposed in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic have all seen infection rates either stall or begin to decline in the last few days.

However, they remain high: between 1,748 per million in the Czech Republic and 685 per million in Germany, all far higher than any previous infection peaks throughout the pandemic.

As in the UK, the link between cases and deaths has been considerably weakened by vaccination, so death rates have remained below previous peaks.

The fall in case numbers has not yet translated to a decline in deaths, either, but experts are hopeful that they will follow a similar pattern.

Death rates in Spain and Italy remain comparatively very low, but have also started to creep upwards.

Both countries have high vaccination rates, with more than 85 per cent fully vaccinated, and booster campaigns that are gathering pace.

They have also started to re-introduce restrictions in recent weeks to tackle the rising cases and head off the omicron variant.

Spain has maintained obligatory face masks indoors throughout the pandemic, and eight of its 17 regions have introduced Covid passports, largely in the last month, for indoor bars and restaurants.

Italy will introduce a “Super Green Pass” next week, boosting its version of a Covid passport to only allow the vaccinated or recently recovered - no longer those with negative tests - to go to restaurants, museums, cinemas and sports events. It will also start vaccinating children aged over 5.

France is focusing on a renewed vaccination drive, including boosters.

Spain's health minister Carolina Darías said on Thursday: "Masks protect us, whatever the letter of the Greek alphabet a variant comes with.”

However, it remains to be seen if the countries will turn to tougher measures if cases continue to rise, or if omicron proves to be a more dangerous variant.

The impact of previous brushes with Covid-19, as well as differing vaccination rates particularly among the elderly, have left certain countries in Europe more vulnerable - and perhaps more in need of strict restrictions.

On Friday, new modelling from the UK’s SPI-M highlighted a paper from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, suggesting that countries in Europe with “lower vaccine coverage among older age groups, relatively low prior exposure and older populations” were at risk of higher deaths and hospitalisations among the elderly in the coming waves.

Austria, Germany and the Netherlands were among those highlighted as having the “highest maximum remaining burdens”.