The difficult road back to normality

First European countries looking at easing lockdown

Active coronavirus cases are only just about to decline. Yet, the first European governments are putting plans into motion that will ease the lockdown and social-distancing policies and allow businesses to gradually reopen.

Many countries around the world, including Cayman, will monitor if some of these strategies might provide a roadmap for action in weeks to come.

On Monday, Austria became the first European country to fix a date at which some small businesses may emerge from near total lockdown.

“The aim is that from April 14 smaller shops up to 400 square metres, as well as hardware and garden stores, can open again, under strict security conditions,” Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said.

If that experiment is successful and does not cause a surge in new infections, larger shops will reopen on 1 May. Hotels, restaurants and other services would follow in mid-May.

Kurz warned that this schedule will depend entirely on how citizens follow the distancing rules during the course of this week and the Easter break.

However, general restrictions on leaving homes will stay in effect until the end of April, schools remain closed until mid-May and mass events are not permitted until the end of June.

Four weeks after Austria moved to ‘minimal activity’, there is no doubt that local lockdown policies were successful in curbing a wider spread of the disease.

The country’s largest daily increase in coronavirus cases came on 26 March with 1,326 new confirmed infections. The number of active COVID-19 cases reached its peak on 3 April at 9,334. For the past three days, this figure dropped by about 200 to 250 active cases each day.

Meanwhile, the time it takes for the total number of infected to double has slowed to 16.5 days. Austria now has a total of 12,300 cases, 14th in the world in terms of reported incidents.

But while the curve of COVID-19 cases is trending downward, it is still dangerously close to its peak.

Only time will tell if the easing of restrictions is premature.

Across the border in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has in recent days changed the conditions, and pushed back tentative dates, for businesses and public life to resume.

While first stating that the rate of new cases doubling would have to reach 10 days before the lockdown measures could be eased, she then said that figure should be 12 to 14 days. Since then, Merkel has dropped mentioning any such targets altogether.

She also does not want to name a prospective date for loosening shelter-at-home policies. Current measures are set to be prolonged on 19 April. “We would not act responsibly, if we set dates that do not withstand reality,” she said.

Lothar Wieler, the president of the Robert Koch Institute, has named four criteria that will indicate when lockdown measures can be relaxed. The rate at which new cases are doubling in size is one of them. The federal agency for disease control and prevention also closely monitors the number of sick patients relative to the population as a whole as well as to the capacity of the health system, for instance in terms of available hospital beds.

Another important criterion is the reproduction rate of the coronavirus. This is the average number of people infected by every person who carries the virus. While at the beginning of the epidemic, one person infected five to seven others, social distancing has brought this rate down to just one in Germany. For the spread of the disease to decline, the reproduction rate needs to drop below one.

A working group of Germany’s National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina issued a paper last week that indicates what then needs to be done to transition back to normal life.

In order to ease some of the lockdown measures after Easter, the scientists advocate increased testing, as well as the temporary use of mobile phone data and apps to track the infected and those who they have been in contact with.

The paper also calls for the wearing of face masks in public. However, because surgical masks are still scarce and should be reserved for medical personnel, scarves and other similar items could be used.

Austria has already made basic face masks compulsory in supermarkets.

Although Germany has carried out almost 1 million coronavirus tests, the most of any country except the US, the scientists believe the capacity should be increased to 350,000 test per week. These broad tests should be supplemented with random sample tests of the entire population.

If these measures were implemented, the paper predicts a rapid decline of new cases by mid-May. However, if public life gradually resumed without these measures in place, the scientists modelled an initial decline followed by a second wave of the pandemic that would result in an even larger number of new coronavirus cases per day, than the peak of 6,933 cases on 27 March.

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