Coronavirus infections, hospital admissions and deaths are plummeting across Europe, after the continent led the world in new cases last autumn and winter in waves that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, forced more rolling lockdowns and overwhelmed intensive care units.
Now, vaccination rates are accelerating across Europe, and, with them, hopes for a rebirth of the tourism industry that in Spain and Italy alone accounts for 13 per cent of gross domestic product but was wiped out by the pandemic.
“We don’t speak of 2020. We speak of from today onward,” said Guglielmo Miani, president of Milan’s Montenapoleone luxury shopping district, where European and American tourists have started trickling back, wooed in part by in-person meetings with design teams and free breakfasts at cafes. The hope is that Asian tourists will follow next year.
Europe saw the largest decline in new Covid-19 infections and deaths this week compared with any other region, while also reporting that about 44 per cent of adults have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Europe’s seven-day rolling average for new cases per 100,000 people had been higher than any other region from mid-October to the beginning of December, ceding the unwanted top spot to the Americas over the new year before reclaiming it from early February through April, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.
Now, no European country is among the top 10 for new cases per 100,000 people. And only Georgia, Lithuania and Sweden are in the top 20.
But the virus is spiking in Southeast Asia and much of Latin America, and hitting the Maldives and Seychelles particularly hard this week.
Dr Michael Ryan, WHO’s chief of emergencies, warned that, with the global situation still “fragile and volatile”, Europe is by no means out of the woods.
“Relaxing measures prematurely has contributed to the surge we have seen throughout 2020 and during the first quarter of 2021,” he said. “We must stay the course while striving to increase vaccination coverage.”
The biggest concern for Europe is the highly contagious variant first detected in India, which has brought that country to its knees and found a growing foothold in Britain.
The UK Government warned on Thursday that the Indian variant accounts for 50 per cent to 75 per cent of all new infections and could delay its plans to lift remaining social restrictions on June 21.
Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, said: “If we’ve learned anything about this virus, it’s that once it starts to spread beyond a few cases, it becomes very difficult to contain. Only extremely stringent local lockdowns soon after a few cases are detected will prevent the virus from spreading.”
Rising British cases linked to the variant prompted Germany and France this week to require UK passengers to quarantine.
Vaccines appear still to be highly effective against the variant, but it is important for people to get both doses to ensure full immunity, said Ravindra Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge.
“In populations where there’s partial immunity, either from previous infection or low levels of antibody (from a single shot), then the virus will have that nice sort of sweet spot of an advantage of immune evasion, plus greater transmission,” he said.
But that has not stopped countries from trying to woo back tourists, even from the UK.
At least 12,000 people from Britain began descending on Porto, Portugal, on Friday for the Champions League final between Manchester City and Chelsea. Visitors have to show a negative Covid-19 test to get into the stadium for Saturday’s match, but no quarantine is required at either end of the trip.
“Luckily I’ve had two vaccines,” said Casper Glyn, a 51-year-old lawyer from London who travelled to Porto to cheer on Chelsea with his two young sons. “They are young and healthy, so I feel good.”
Spain lifts entry requirements
On Monday, Spain lifted entry requirements – including the need for a negative virus test – for visitors from 10 countries, including the UK. British travellers are highly sought after at Spanish beach resorts because they tend to spend the most.
Spain lifted the measures after its two-week contagion rate dropped below 130 new infections per 100,000 people, down from a record of 900 at the end of January.
Fernando Simón, head of Spain’s health emergency co-ordination centre, said he would prefer authorities “shouted that Spain is open to tourism in 20 days, not now, when we still need to be cautious”.
“I think we should lower the tone of euphoria a little,” he said.
Greece, too, was voicing caution even after it recently allowed domestic travel and reopened most economic activity. About a third of the Greek population has received at least one vaccine dose, but new infections and deaths remain high.
Encouraging Greeks to get vaccinated, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said: “Yes, hospitalisations are dropping, yes, deaths and intubations are down, (but) there are still people entering hospital who could have been vaccinated and weren’t.
“And some, unfortunately, are losing their lives. It’s a tragedy,” he said.
But elsewhere, the euphoria is real. There is a palpable sense of relief and hope as summer approaches in Poland, where the number of new daily infections has plummeted from more than 35,000 in late March and early April to lows in the few hundreds. More than 19 million vaccine doses have been administered in the nation of 38 million.
This week, North Macedonia closed all but one of its Covid-19 treatment centres and field hospitals following a dramatic 90 per cent decline in confirmed cases.
Italy and Cyprus are due to let restaurants reopen for indoor dining on Tuesday with discos – a big summertime moneymaker for southern European beach resorts – scheduled soon afterwards.
The party was already under way in the Dutch city of Rotterdam last weekend when Maneskin – an Italian rock band that got its start singing in Rome’s central shopping street – won the Eurovision Song Contest.
“The whole event was a relief,” lead singer Damiano David said. “This Eurovision means a lot, I think, to the whole of Europe. It’s going to be a lighthouse.”