Coronavirus: How countries around world are easing their lockdowns

Nations that hope they have weathered the pandemic’s first wave are now looking to re-open their societies

Chris Baynes
Thursday 09 April 2020 17:48 BST
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Falling rates of death and new infections have been welcomed as “the light at the end of the tunnel” in some of the countries most badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Several nations – mostly in Europe – are now looking at easing their lockdowns, amid hopes they may have weathered the first wave of the pandemic.

Austria and Denmark this week announced plans to ease restrictions that were imposed to slow the spread of the virus, while Spain and Italy are considering how to partially re-open societies in the coming weeks.

In China, meanwhile, the incremental lifting of the world’s first Covid-19 lockdown has already restored a semblance of normality to the country where the virus originated.

However, European leaders have called for caution and the World Health Organisation has warned infection rates could rebound if countries curb constraints too quickly.

While the UK is expected to extend its initial three-week lockdown, the government’s scientific advisers will be closely monitoring other nations that are further ahead in efforts to suppress the disease.

China

Authorities have been easing restrictions gradually and regionally in China, which imposed an unprecedentedly strict lockdown in Hubei province – the initial epicentre of the coronavirus – in January before the disease had spread around the world.

Wuhan, the city where the first cases of Covid-19 were reported late last year, allowed people to leave the city for the first time on Wednesday – providing they have been issued with a “green code” on an official smartphone app. Public transport has been reinstated, although running a more limited service, but schools remain closed.

Travel restrictions in other parts of Hubei province region, where Wuhan is situated, were eased late in March.

Authorities had begun easing the city’s lockdown last month after the infection rate dropped, allowing people from certified “epidemic-free” residential compounds out of their homes for two hours a day. But other communities had their epidemic-free status revoked this week after the emergence of asymptomatic cases. Checkpoints for testing people’s temperatures remain in place in residential areas.

In China’s other regions and cities, where the outbreak was less severe, many factories, shops and restaurants have been open again for several weeks – although office workers have continued to work from home where possible.

The Beijing government on Thursday announced new guidance for bars in the capital, stating tables should be set one-metre apart and vigorously disinfected. Shanghai, China’s commercial centre, has said it will begin reopening some schools from 27 April.

Tight border controls preventing foreigners from travelling into China remain in place, and Chinese nationals arriving from overseas are subject to testing.

On Tuesday, China reported no new deaths from coronavirus for the first time since it began issuing daily briefings on the outbreak more than two months ago. However, there are fears the country may experience a second wave of coronavirus cases as restrictions are lifted and people return to work.

Austria

The Austrian government has laid out a timetable for shops to reopen in phases beginning from 14 April. But chancellor Sebastian Kurz cautioned his government could activate an “emergency brake” if the number of people with the virus accelerates again.

The plan is to initially reopen small shops of less than 400 square meters, DIY stores and garden centres. The number of people permitted inside will be limited, and all will have to wear face masks, as they already must at Austria’s supermarkets. People will have to start wearing masks on public transportation.

Authorities hope to let remaining shops open on 1 May, including shopping centres and hair salons. Restaurants and hotels will not follow until at least mid-May, with a decision on the date to be made at the end of this month.

Denmark

Denmark plans to reopen daycare centres and schools on 15 April as a first step to gradually relax a three-week lockdown.

The Nordic country, which was one of the first in Europe to shut down, has seen the number of coronavirus-related hospital admissions and deaths stabilise over the past week since it closed schools, restaurants, cafes and gyms and shut its borders to most foreigners.

Prime minister Mette Frederiksen said the lifting of the lockdown will be “a bit like walking the tightrope”.

“If we stand still along the way we could fall and if we go too fast it can go wrong. Therefore, we must take one cautious step at a time,“ she said.

Czech Republic

The Czech government this week extended the type of shops that are allowed to do business to include those selling construction materials, hobby supplies and bikes. Only grocery stores, pharmacies and garden centres are currently allowed to trade.

Retailers added to the list of shops deemed essential on Thursday are required to make disinfectant and disposable gloves available at the entrance for customers and enforce social distancing rules.

The government is set to consider this week whether to reopen more stores after Easter.

Norway

Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg this week announce plans to “open up society little by little”, beginning with nursery and primary school children returning to classrooms from 20 April. Schools will reopen for older pupils from the following week.

However, widespread working from home will continue and Ms Solberg told the public they must get used to measures against contamination “for a long time”.

Major sports and cultural events such as festivals remain banned until 15 June and Norwegians have been advised not to travel abroad unless essential. Foreigners without the right to live or work in the country are still not barred from entry.

Iran

Social distancing measures will be eased in Iran from 11 April to allow “low-risk” business activity to resume, the country’s president Hassan Rouhani said this week.

Two-thirds of all Iranian government employees will return to work, although this does not extend to those based in Tehran – the epicentre of the country’s outbreak.

Mr Rouhani did not spell what he meant by low-risk activity, but said the suspension of “high-risk activities” – schools, universities and various social, cultural, sports and religious events – would be extended to 18 April.

Iran, which was late to impose a lockdown, has been struggling to curb the spread of the Covid-19 but new cases are falling and authorities are concerned that restrictions could wreck an economy already under strain from international sanctions.

Spain

Despite the Spanish coronavirus death rate increasing for the first time in five days on Tuesday, officials are working on a plan to ease restrictions that have shut down non-core businesses.

For this, health chiefs say testing has to be widened to find carriers who may have mild or no symptoms.

The government is planning mass, quick antibody tests in coming days. Cadena Ser radio said about 62,000 people would be tested twice with an interval of 21 days to see the effect of any easing of measures on contagion.

Italy

After flattening the curve of new Covid-19 cases, Europe’s worst-hit nation is beginning to look for ways to ease its lockdown and revive an economy crippled by stringent distancing measures.

Giuseppe Conte’s government is under growing pressure from businesses to lift restrictions, with firms in the country’s northern industrial heartland asking to be allowed to reopen as early as next week.

About 150 Italian academics published a letter in Italian financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore on Tuesday warning of “irreversible damage” if the lockdown is not lifted soon.

But Mr Conte faces a tight balancing act as Italy looks to prevent a second wave of infections. On Thursday he said ”scientists are telling us not to ease the restrictive measures at all”, although he said “we might begin to relax some measures already by the end of this month” if advisers permit it.

So far, officials have said that work restrictions would probably be lifted on a sector-by-sector rather than geographical basis. Social distancing and wider use of personal protection devices such as face masks would be required.

Testing and “contact tracing” would be extended, including with the use of smartphone apps and other forms of digital technology – measures employed with apparent success in South Korea.

Authorities in northern Italy have also begun testing health workers for antibodies that may help identify individuals with immunity to the coronavirus. The aim would be to allow authorities to issue “licences” for individuals with proven immunity to the virus to return to work.

Finland

Prime minister Sanna Marin said on Thursday the government was considering lifting restrictions on non-essential traffic to and from the Uusimaa region around the capital Helsinki.

The closure, in place since 28 March, is now set to come to an end on 19 April.

But the government has extended a ban on public meetings of more than 10 people and the closure of most schools until 13 May.

Restaurants, which were ordered to shut on 4 April, also now remain closed until the end of May.

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