Germany’s tough anti-Covid measures are likely to last a further eight to 10 weeks, Angela Merkel has warned, while Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte is set to extend the Netherlands’ national lockdown into next month.
As Europe struggles to stem the number of cases and deaths and concerns about the new, more contagious British variant mount, the German chancellor said infections could rise 10-fold by Easter if the country did not succeed in containing the virus’s spread.
Germany’s lockdown, under which schools and non-essential shops and services have closed, was due to last until 31 January, but Merkel reportedly told a working group of her Christian Democratic Union: “We still need eight to 10 weeks of hard measures.”
The country has been recording record daily case numbers and deaths in the 900-1,000 range but the figures remain skewed due to under-reporting over the Christmas holiday and a true picture is not expected to be available until 17 January.
With variants believed to be in Germany, including the B117 variant from the UK and N501Y from South Africa, the health minister, Jens Spahn, has ordered labs to test every tenth sample for variants compared with every 900th sample previously.
The Dutch government, meanwhile, is expected on Tuesday to extend the country’s lockdown by at least three weeks, with experts warning the country has no alternative since the number of positive tests, while declining, is not falling fast enough.
The epidemiologist Amrish Baidjoe told the public broadcaster NOS that if the government relaxed the rules “and the British variant takes hold in the Netherlands, then the figures can rise rapidly and we will end up with a situation like in Britain”.
Ministers are reported to have debated imposing a curfew, but according to media reports the government is considering allowing primary schools in the Netherlands to reopen from 25 January.
After a rise in the number of infections in the past few days, neighbouring Belgium may also face a sustained increase over the coming weeks as more people undergo tests after returning from holiday, health ministry spokesman Yves Van Laethem said.
“The situation remains fragile,” Van Laethem said, adding that the country had last year recorded its highest annual mortality rate since the Spanish flu and the end of the first world war in 1918.
The EU, meanwhile, will have all the vaccine doses it needs from April when larger deliveries are made to the 27 member states, the bloc’s chief negotiator with the suppliers said in response to criticism.
In evidence to the European parliament’s environment committee, Sandra Gallina, the director general for health and food safety in the European commission, said the bloc had purchased as much vaccine as had been possible.
“The contracts we have agreed include schedules that will be much richer starting from April onwards – quarter two is going to be the quarter with the many doses,” she said. The first quarter doses … are of course not as abundant as many would like.”
The commission has faced criticism for not buying enough vaccines. While it has secured up to 2.3bn doses from the most promising vaccine candidates, only two – BionTech/Pfizer and Moderna – have as yet received European regulatory approval.
“I may say to you that we went really very far with the quantities and we bought all that could be bought,” Gallina said. “I am not sure why this debate is there, because the numbers are there, production is ramping up.”
In a reminder of the serious economic consequences of the virus crisis, the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, called for the creation of an EU-wide vaccination certificate to help restore cross-border travel devastated by the pandemic.
Greece, which relies on tourism for a fifth of its economic output and is keen to revive travel before the summer season, has already created its own standardised certificate to prove an individual has been vaccinated.
But in a letter to the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, Mitsotakis proposed extending the scheme to all 27 countries in the EU. The certificate could be used when embarking on all forms of transport, he said.
“While we are not going to make vaccination compulsory or a prerequisite for travel, persons who have been vaccinated should be free to travel,” he said. “It is urgent to adopt a common understanding on a vaccination certificate.”
As Portugal’s president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, tested negative for the virus after a positive test led to him cancelling all public engagements, it emerged that the tourism-dependent Algarve region had suffered its worst tourism year on record.
Business made €800m (£704m) less in 2020 than the year before – a 65% drop – as the pandemic kept visitors away from the region’s beaches and golf courses. The Algarve hotel association AHETA said hotel stays fell 75% and occupancy was just 28%, compared with 63% in 2019.