Like pacesetters in a deadly long-distance race, Italy and Spain have for weeks charted new and frightening territory, as the coronavirus pandemic grips Europe. Citizens have watched in anguish, as daily death tolls climbed close to a thousand and hospitals were overwhelmed. At the weekend, nearly a month after Rome and Madrid imposed national lockdowns, the first glimmerings of a reward for an unprecedented period of collective self-restraint were visible. In Italy, Sunday’s reported death toll of 525 was the smallest daily increase since 19 March, and the number of people requiring hospital treatment also fell. In Spain, the growth rate of the number of infections was the lowest since the pandemic began.
The uplifting data appears to confirm the positive impact of effective physical distancing on the virus’s spread. Italy’s health minister, Roberto Speranza, is expected to extend the country’s lockdown well beyond its current end date of 13 April, and the government will wait to see the downward trends maintained over a number of days. In Spain, the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has already extended the shutdown until 26 April. But the welcome flattening of those dismal curves creates dilemmas and quandaries that are no less daunting for being the result of good news.
As Spanish and Italian citizens desperately seek some respite and the spectre of the deepest global recession since the 1930s looms, their politicians’ thoughts are turning to how to manage a loosening of restrictions on people and business, while minimisingthe risk of triggering a second deadly wave.
The task, as Mr Speranza says, is to work out a way “to live with the virus” until a vaccine is discovered. Mr Sánchez has indicated that a ban on all non-essential work will be lifted after Easter. Other European countries, including France and Austria, where some shops will reopen next week, have also begun to game-plan the second phase of the crisis. The modus vivendi will, if it is to work, involve continued physical distancing, much greater testing and contact tracing in the community, and a functioning antibody test to establish who has had and recovered from the disease. The French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, has emphasised that any easing of the lockdown in France will be “fearsomely complex” and is not likely to happen “in one move everywhere and for everyone”. The politics of easing lockdown will be as fraught and treacherous as imposing it in the first place.
As the death rate here continues to rise steeply, ministers are, rightly, preoccupied with reinforcing one stark message: a rigorously observed lockdown for an extended period to come is the only way to save thousands of lives that would otherwise be lost. But as other countries begin to unveil looser measures, the pressure on the government to reveal its own eventual exit strategy will be intense. It must do the necessary groundwork now.
The challenges will be multiple: in Germany, scientists have estimated that the current level of 50,000 tests a day – compared with around 10,000 in Britain – would be insufficient to allow even a partial end to lockdown. A system of effective contact tracing will need to be devised. Certain sections of the population will need to be told that they must continue to stay at home. Particular types of businesses may need to be prioritised at the expense of others. In March, the British government was badly behind the curve when it came to moving to a form of lockdown. If it is to maintain the confidence and cooperation of the public in staying at home, it will soon need to offer a credible account of what comes next.