Hungary and Portugal have become the latest countries in Europe to impose tough new restrictions to stem the second wave of the coronavirus, as the first signs of light at the end of the tunnel emerged in France, Germany and Belgium.
As the US pharmaceuticals company Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, said their experimental Covid-19 vaccine appeared safe and more than 90% effective, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, announced a partial lockdown.
The restrictions, due to start on Wednesday and last 30 days, include an extension of an existing night-time curfew, a ban on gatherings, the closure of bars, restaurants and cultural venues and a move to online teaching for universities.
Hungary recorded 5,000 new infections on Monday, the fourth-highest per capita rate in the EU, with more than 6,000 Covid-19 patients in hospital. Nearly 4,150 people were on ventilators, close to the country’s capacity of 4,480 intensive care beds.
Portugal imposed a state of emergency and ordered about 70% of its population to stay home on weekday nights from 11pm to 5am for the next two weeks – and to only leave the house at the weekend in the mornings until 1pm, unless to buy essentials.
As the number of cases worldwide passed 50 million, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, a leading expert in Italy – where more than 41,000 people have died – said the situation there was becoming unmanageable.
The government last week imposed a countrywide night curfew as well as tougher measures in four regions, closing most shops, bars and restaurants and restricting residents’ movements.
“I am afraid there is no doubt that the situation is largely out of control,” Massimo Galli, the head of the infectious diseases department at Milan’s renowned Sacco hospital, said, backing call by the national federation of medical associations for a “total lockdown throughout the country”.
Russia registered a record number of new infections on Monday, with cases in Moscow surpassing a previous high set in May, but the Kremlin has so far ruled out reimposing sweeping restrictions that were lifted earlier this year.
An official tally showed new infections hit 21,798, nearly doubling the country’s first-wave record. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the steady growth in cases “remained alarming” but noted that “not all countries are in lockdown”.
Elsewhere, there were glimmers of hope. Belgian authorities said they were confident the second wave of coronavirus hospital admissions had peaked, with about 400 people admitted to hospital on Sunday, compared with 879 on 3 November.
“Subject to an unpleasant surprise,” the peak in hospital admissions had been reached, the virologist Yves Van Laethem said, while daily new infections were also down by about 40% against the average of the previous seven days.
Belgium, which for part of last month had the highest number of daily cases per capita in Europe, returned to partial lockdown, closing non-essential shops, bars and restaurants and extending its schools’ half-term holidays.
Infections in the Czech Republic, which has had one of Europe’s highest infection rates in recent weeks, have also started to decline after a two-month rise to record levels, with the country reporting 3,600 new cases from Sunday, the lowest daily tally in four weeks and 3,000 fewer than a week ago.
There are initial signs that the rise of infections in Germany is also flattening, the health minister, Jens Spahn, said on Monday, although he added it would only become clear later this week whether restrictions that came into effect last week were working.
“We are seeing that the dynamic is levelling off, that the increase is not as strong, but of course that is not the goal,” Spahn said. “We have to reduce the numbers.”
In France, which last week reimposed a nationwide lockdown while keeping schools and essential businesses open, the health minister, Olivier Véran, said there were early indications the measures may be starting to slow the latest surge.
Infection numbers would have flared up “faster and stronger” without them, Véran said, while Martin Hirsch, the director of the Paris regional health system’s 39 hospitals, said there had been “the beginnings of a dip” in admissions, which had slipped over the past few days to about 80 a day from 110 the previous week.
The situation in French hospitals remained grim, with emergency wards approaching capacity and some sick patients being evacuated from struggling hospitals to others that still had space.
The director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Ghebreyesus, said countries had to unite to fight the virus. “We might be tired of Covid-19, but it’s not tired of us,” he said.
“It preys on inequality, division, denial, wishful thinking and wilful ignorance. We cannot close our eyes and hope it goes away. It pays no heed to political rhetoric or conspiracy theories. Our only hope is science, solutions and solidarity.”