Spain recorded the smallest number of new coronavirus deaths in nearly five weeks, Germany’s sick beds continued to empty, and France and Italy showed progress in slowing the spread, welcome signs for European leaders ahead of further steps to ease curbs that have battered the economy.
With Spain still on almost-total lockdown, the number of fatalities rose by 367, the fewest since March 21, according to Health Ministry data published Friday.
As other countries in Europe start to relax containment measures, Spain has yet to publish detailed plans on lifting the restrictions that have brought the nation to an almost complete standstill for more than a month. Fighting the most extensive outbreak in Europe, Prime Minster Pedro Sanchez has said that a cautious easing may begin next month.
In Germany, some 106,800 people have recovered from the disease, and Europe’s largest economy maintained its so-called reproduction factor below 1, meaning the number of people with Covid-19 is declining.
“Testing is one of the keys to why we have been able to come through this crisis in relatively good shape until now,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said Friday on broadcaster ZDF. “We tested very widely from the start and therefore had a very early picture of the development in Germany.”
With more than 110,000 deaths, or nearly 60% of the global total, Europe has been hit hard by the pandemic. But as new infections decline, the region’s leaders are starting to implement looser curbs on contact between people as they try to revive business activity.
The European Union edged closer to agreeing on a reconstruction plan on Thursday. The bloc’s leaders endorsed a short-term 540 billion-euro ($580 billion) package but failed to make much progress on a longer-term rebuilding program.
Pressure to act is mounting. European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde told heads of government that the euro-area economy could shrink by as much as 15% this year, and they risk doing too little, too late, according to people familiar with the remarks.
Germany expects its national output to shrink between 6.3% this year, the worst contraction since at least 1950, Handelsblatt reported, citing government projections due to be published next week. The Economy Ministry declined to comment.
While reconstruction talks continue, progress is being made in protecting public health. Patients who recovered from infections outnumbered new cases in Italy on Thursday for the first time since the country became Europe’s original epicenter of the outbreak.
Italy’s unprecedented shutdown, which began March 10, has closed factories, confined people to their homes and brought daily life for 60 million people in the euro area’s third-biggest economy to a near standstill. An initial reopening of businesses is planned for May 4, provided Italians observe protective and social-distancing guidelines.
“The numbers are particularly reassuring,” Italian Civil Protection Department chief Angelo Borrelli told reporters. Hospitalizations, including in intensive care, have been decreasing since early April, according to Italian authorities.
France is working on a plan to gradually lift restrictions on non-essential travel and reopen the economy starting May 11. President Emmanuel Macron told mayors that the end of the lockdown will happen within a national framework that can be adapted locally, depending on health conditions and mass transit, according to a government official. Macron also told them schools would gradually restart.
With almost 70,000 coronavirus deaths combined, Italy, France and Spain face Europe’s toughest choices between halting the economic devastation and relaxing weeks of lockdowns that have reined in the outbreak. Some other EU countries, such as Germany and Austria, began easing this month.
Austria’s first round of easing, which started April 14, hasn’t led to an uptick in new infections, which have been below 100 for six days straight. Hospitalizations including intensive care have been on a downward trajectory for two weeks.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s government will continue with more easing measures next week, when remaining shops can reopen after the May 1 holiday. Schools will open for students aged 6 to 14 from May 18, Education Minister Heinz Fassmann told reporters in Vienna. Classes will be split in two and taught in shifts, and masks will be mandatory outside of class rooms.
Despite progress, Spain’s latest data reflect the struggles in controlling the disease. Total confirmed cases rose by 6,740, the most since April 4.
Germany’s new cases and deaths rose the most in nearly a week. There were 2,481 new infections in the 24 hours through Friday morning, bringing the total to 153,129, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Fatalities rose to 5,575 and the death rate — one of the world’s lowest — edged up to 3.6%.
After opening small shops and hardware stores on Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel repeated her warning of the risks of second-wave infections, saying the nation is “far from being out of the woods.”
As Germany looks to reopen, children and young adults will play a “key role” in whether the virus spreads in broader society, Lars Schaade, vice president of the Robert Koch Institute, said at a briefing in Berlin. That’s because they’re mobile and go to more events than others, but also more commonly carry the virus without showing symptoms.
“It’s not over yet — unfortunately, it’s not over yet,” he said, urging Germans to stick to the social-distancing measures.
(Updates with Austria’s latest easing steps, Spain figures, German health authority comments)
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