“Vaccines, on the one hand, offer remarkable hope. On the other hand, newly emerging variants of concern are presenting greater uncertainty and risk,” Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, regional director for Europe at WHO, said. The paradox is where communities sense an end is in sight with the vaccine but, at the same time, are called to adhere to restrictive measures in the face of a new threat. That, in turn, is causing tension, angst, fatigue and confusion.
While understandable, Kluge also noted that lockdowns introduced to limit the spread of Covid-19, particularly the new more transmissible variants, have resulted in a decrease in new cases. He also said one of the pandemic’s harsher lessons is that “opening and closing, locking down and opening up, rapidly, is a poor strategy.”
“The introduction and gradual lifting of measures based on epidemiological criteria remains our best option to allow economies to survive and minimize collateral effects,” he added. “Our approach must be measured, it must be restrained.”
Kluge stressed the time needed to vaccinate broad swaths of the population against Covid-19. “To the millions of you in the 25 European countries that are currently in partial or full nationwide lockdown, whose freedom of movement is restricted, I am fully aware of the sacrifices you have made. I too feel it in my family, my community and my workplace.,” he said. “In the face of new, more transmissible variants of the virus, we will need to keep our guard up. This is the time we must draw on every reserve of patience and resilience to tolerate and adhere to the necessary measures that protect our health systems from collapsing under waves of a more transmissible virus.”
Despite the WHO’s warning that easing restrictions could be premature, the Italian government went ahead and did just that.
Italy on Monday relaxed its Covid-19 restrictions, placing some areas such as Rome in the yellow zone, allowing tourist landmarks to reopen. The Vatican also eased restrictions, after being closed for nearly 90 days. Other areas such as Sicily and Sardinia are classified in the slightly more restrictive orange zone, limiting restaurants to takeout or home delivery and ordering residents to shelter in place when not venturing out for work.
As of Sunday, France has elected to close its borders to all countries outside of the European Union. French Prime Minister Jean Castex said large shopping centers would close and ordered additional police checks to ensure adherence to a mandated curfew. Castex said Friday night that the new measures were put in place in hopes of avoiding a third national lockdown. “Our duty is to do all we can to avoid a lockdown. The coming days will be crucial,” he said.
The U.K. is already on its third national lockdown, which began at the start of 2021 after Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the U.K. strain as more contagious, and now potentially more lethal.
In Northern Ireland, what began as a six-week lockdown beginning on Dec. 26 has now been extended until March 5. And its neighbor the Republic of Ireland, which had planned to lift restrictions at the end of January, will now remain in lockdown through February.
In the U.S., the Biden administration is working to win bipartisan support for the president’s proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus plan that includes more checks to Americans and additional support for the Covid vaccination program.
Michael Osterholm, a director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota who was on Biden Covid-19 task force during the presidential transition, warned last week in an interview with MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle that the worst of the pandemic lies ahead. The “next six to 14 weeks could be the darkest” if the mutated and more contagious variants of the virus take hold across the U.S. as it has throughout Europe, he told CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.