Covid-19 infections hit a three-month high in Germany and face masks were made compulsory in public throughout the Brussels region as the accelerating spread of the virus continued to ring alarm bells across Europe.
As schools in the Germany’s most populous state reopened on Wednesday, the health minister, Jens Spahn, said outbreaks had occurred across the country, mainly sparked by holidaymakers returning home from abroad, or by parties or family gatherings
The national disease control authority, the Robert Koch Institute, on Wednesday reported 1,226 new infections, mainly among younger people, the highest number in Germany since May. At the height of the pandemic it was reporting 6,000 new daily cases.
“This is worrying, without doubt,” Spahn told German radio. “And it can naturally lead to a new dynamic if we don’t all now exercise caution.” Germany has recorded 218,519 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 9,207 deaths.
In North Rhine-Westphalia, where 2.5 million children were returning to class, all pupils aged 11 or over are required to wear masks at all times.
Face masks also became mandatory in all public places in Brussels on Wednesday after the number of coronavirus cases exceeded 50 per 100,000 people in the Belgian capital, triggering an order made earlier by the local government head Rudi Vervoort.
“Rising figures don’t necessarily mean the situation is severe today, but they do represent a warning signal that we need to intervene,” said Frédérique Jacobs, a spokeswoman for the federal Covid taskforce.
In Italy, one of the continent’s hardest-hit countries in March and April, several regions began ordering new quarantines for people returning from higher-risk European countries such as Spain. Germany added Madrid and the Basque country to its blacklist, along with Catalonia, Aragón and Navarra.
According to the latest figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the cumulative 14-day total of new cases in Spain, where fresh outbreaks have been reported in Madrid, Castille-León and the Balearics, has climbed to 98, the second highest rate in Europe after Luxembourg.
Paris city authorities announced they were cancelling the city’s marathon, which had been rescheduled for 15 November from 5 April, as the number of new cases continued to pick up across France, including in the greater Paris region.
The national health agency reported 2,554 new infections across the country on Wednesday, pushing France’s infection rate per 100,000 people to above 30 and bringing its average of new daily cases to more than 1,700.
The Swiss government announced it was extending its ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people by a month, until 1 October, as Covid-19 cases were back on the rise.
The leader of one of the parties in the Netherlands’ coalition government joined opposition MPs in criticising the government’s handling of the crisis amid sharply rising infection rates in the country, where more than 6,100 people are confirmed to have died of Covid-19.
“If I look at how the cabinet has reacted over the past weeks, the word that springs to mind is chaos,” said the opposition PvdA Labour party leader, Lodewijk Asscher. The Dutch public health institute said on Tuesday it had registered 4,036 new confirmed infections in the past week, 1,448 more than the previous seven days.
Several countries expressed scepticism about Russia becoming the first country to grant regulatory approval to a Covid-19 vaccine, with Germany’s Spahn saying that what mattered was to have a safe, tested product rather than just being first.
Vladimir Putin insisted the vaccine, called Sputnik after the pioneering 1950s Soviet satellite, was safe, saying one of his own daughters had received it, but western scientists expressed concern that Russian researchers could be cutting corners.
“It’s important that we provide safe, effective vaccines and that the data be transparent … This is not a race to be first,” said the US health secretary, Alex Azar. “Two of the six US vaccines that we’ve invested in entered the phase-three clinical trials weeks ago that the Russian vaccine is now only beginning.”
A spokesman for the WHO, which says 165 candidate vaccines are being worked on around the world, including six in phase–three clinical trials, said it was in “close contact” with Russian health authorities but that it was too soon for the global health body to give its stamp of approval without a rigorous review.
Russia’s health minister, Mikhail Murashko, dismissed the worries. “It seems our foreign colleagues are sensing the specific competitive advantages of the Russian drug and are trying to express opinions that in our opinion are completely groundless,” Murashko said.