NEWS
31/03/2020 7:45 AM AEDT

When Will Life Return to Normal? The Answer From Europe Is Emerging

Coronavirus cases may be starting to peak in Europe, but lockdowns will likely remain in place for months, officials said.

Across Europe, politicians and public health officials have begun to signal that the coronavirus epidemic there may soon reach its peak — suggesting that the dramatic lockdowns limiting travel, business activity and social life might be starting to halt the spread of the virus. Yet, the restrictions placed on daily life will likely need to remain in place for weeks or months to come in order to keep the virus in check, officials said.

“The lockdown is starting to work,” Pierpaolo Sileri, Italy’s deputy health minister, told BBC on Sunday. “I believe that in one week’s time, 10 days maximum, we will see a drop in positive cases.”

On Sunday, the death rate in Italy slowed for the second straight day, and the number of new confirmed coronavirus cases rose by 5.6% to 3,815 — the lowest increase of the outbreak in the country so far.

Franco Locatelli, the head of Italy’s supreme health council, agreed that the restrictions were helping to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“We would not have been able to record these numbers if we had not put in place such stringent measures,” Locatelli told HuffPost Italy.

Even so, he said, the restrictions would need to be maintained for some time.

“Speaking of reopening now seems frankly premature,” Locatelli said. “If we opened now, we would nullify all the sacrifices made. The political decision-makers will have to evaluate the choices to be made, but in a few weeks. I repeat — and I have no hesitation in underlining it — it is now premature. Let’s consolidate the data we’re recording right now.”

The question of when normal life might resume has been a key question, both in Europe and in the United States, where President Donald Trump had initially said he wanted American businesses “opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”

On Sunday, however, Trump said the country’s social distancing guidelines would be extended through the end of April and possibly to June, as public health officials warned that as many as 200,000 Americans could die from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Enrico Bucci, a professor of biology at Temple University in Philadelphia who has been studying the spread of the coronavirus in Italy, said it’s “impossible” to come up with an accurate forecast of when the outbreak there will end.

“We can only look at other countries and say that, in individual outbreaks, the worst passed in about two months,” he told HuffPost Italy. “In Italy, however, we have many outbreaks which, if not contained, will grow at different times, prolonging the crisis.”

Particularly because the number of infections in the country is likely much higher than what has officially been reported, Bucci said, creating forecasts based on the official figures is a flawed exercise.

“One day, someone will have guessed it right and will be happy to tell the world,” he said. “Every lottery has a winner.”

The situation is similar in Spain, where health authorities announced over the weekend that the country’s epidemic appeared to be peaking as well.

“We’re getting there,” Fernando Simon, the head of Spain’s center for health emergencies, said at a press conference on Saturday, per The Guardian. “We don’t know exactly when we’ll get confirmation, but we’re getting close to the peak of the curve that we’re studying so anxiously. In some parts of the country, they probably may even have passed it — but we need to be cautious with preliminary information.”

Spain recorded another 838 deaths from the coronavirus on Sunday — its highest daily increase in fatalities since the outbreak began. On Monday, the death toll decreased slightly to 812, bringing the total number of deaths in the country to 7,340. That same day, all nonessential workers in the country were ordered to stay home for the next two weeks. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said the “extraordinarily tough” restrictions were necessary to control the virus.

“This measure will reduce people’s movement even further, but it will reduce the risk of contagion and allow us to unblock our intensive care units,” Sánchez said.

In the United Kingdom, Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, who has been advising the government on the outbreak, told the BBC on Monday that the spread of the virus may be slowing as a result of the social distancing measures implemented last week.

“In the U.K., we can see some early signs of slowing in some indicators — less so deaths because deaths are lagged by a long time from when measures come in force,” Ferguson said. “But if we look at the numbers of new hospital admissions, that does appear to be slowing down a bit now. It has not yet plateaued, so still the numbers can be increasing each day, but the rate of that increase has slowed.”

In order to get the outbreak fully under control, however, restrictions may need to remain in place for six months or longer, Dr. Jenny Harries, the U.K.’s deputy chief medical officer, said on Sunday.

“Three weeks for review, two or three months to see if we’ve really squashed it — but three to six months, ideally, but lots of uncertainty in that,” Harries said. “It is plausible it could go further than that.”

She added that measures could be loosened or tightened in response to the rate of infections, but that it would be dangerous for the U.K. to “suddenly revert to our normal way of living” before the outbreak is over.

“If we stop, then all of our efforts will be wasted and we could potentially see a second peak,” Harries said.

“As a nation, we have to be really, really responsible and keep doing what we’re all doing until we’re sure we can gradually start lifting various interventions, which are likely to be spaced — based on the science and our data — until we gradually come back to a normal way of living,” she added.

In Italy, Locatelli said that while the decision to implement restrictions on daily life was “a painful act,” deciding when to allow normal life to resume would be even more challenging.

“No one underestimates the economic impact of the measures and the sacrifice required of millions of people,” he said. “But reopening will be a far-from-easy decision-making process.”

Lifting restrictions too quickly could allow the virus to surge back, Locatelli cautioned. Politicians and public health authorities need to be careful, he said, “not to frustrate what has been done.”

With reporting from HuffPost Italy, HuffPost Spain and HuffPost U.K.