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European Countries See Spikes In Coronavirus Cases


As nations around the world continue to fight the coronavirus, we're checking in today with Europe. COVID-19 cases have risen sharply in many countries there. And concerns are rising as winter approaches. Joining us are NPR's Frank Langfitt in London, Rob Schmitz in Berlin and Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

Hi to all of you.




PFEIFFER: Frank, let's start with you because new restrictions are going into effect in Scotland today I believe and in England tomorrow. What are these new measures, and what prompted them?

LANGFITT: Yeah. So in Scotland, they're saying households can't mix anymore, which is a big change. And then by the end of the week in both England and Scotland, pubs, restaurants and places like that will have to close by 10. And the other thing they're saying in England - Boris Johnson said this yesterday - is people who don't have to go to work should be working from home. And the reason for this is we've seen cases rise really quickly. I think the estimates from one government agency are around 6,000 a day. And the estimate from scientists who advise the government is we could be up to 50,000 a day by mid-October if nothing else is done.

PFEIFFER: Positive cases.

LANGFITT: Exactly. And so we had a summer that was really relaxed here. You could do a lot. It almost felt not exactly normal but a lot better than it was. And now we just - we're sort of feeling that, frankly, the virus is starting to close in.

PFEIFFER: Wow. By the way, I've read that the daily death toll and the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients in the U.K. is relatively low. So how has Boris Johnson explained to the public why he still thinks these new restrictions are necessary?

LANGFITT: Well, actually, I think the concern is that it is taking off really fast. And the R-rate, as we know, which is how much it can spread from one person to others, is rising. And so he thinks that things are going to get bad pretty quickly.

And there's actually a lot of tension over the economy and health here. Johnson is really worried because the lockdown here was devastating. I mean, right now I'm in Waterloo Station, which one of the busiest stations in the entire country in London. And, you know, I'm looking at the places where I normally eat, and they're all shut down. And the concern is if there's another lockdown, it's going to be really, really hard to keep the economy going. And we have had three months of growth, which has been nice to see. But still, we're nowhere near the economic levels we were before we went - before the crisis hit.

PFEIFFER: And, Rob and Eleanor, I'm interested in how elsewhere in Europe that issue of protecting health versus protecting the economy is working out. So, Rob, you first. What's going on in Germany in terms of restrictions and how they don't further damage the economy with any new restrictions?

SCHMITZ: Right. You know, the government here in Germany was about to loosen restrictions a month ago, but then coronavirus cases started to spike. And we're still looking at between 1,500 to 2,000 new cases a day. So it's not as dire as the U.K., nor France, really. But it's enough to alarm officials here in Germany. Deaths, though, are remaining low. So that tells us that most of these new cases are among young people, and many of them are schoolchildren. Germany's government is committed to ensuring that children are physically inside their classrooms.

And part of the push for that is purely economic - to make sure that parents have time to work and contribute to what is now a flailing economy. And I can tell you, as the father of two school-aged kids, that, you know, we are seeing children and teachers testing positive on a fairly regular basis. But when that happens, there's a protocol involved, when an entire class is then immediately sent home, tested and quarantined. And so far, this appears to be working.

PFEIFFER: And, Eleanor, I understand that the plan in France is that kids are in school and even if the kids test positive, they'll remain in school. Can you tell us about that and what the thinking is there?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, that's right. First of all, there's about 10,000 new cases a day here every day, so it's rising very quickly. It is, for now, among young people. And deaths have been low. But emergency ICU units are starting to fill up in some areas of the country. The new protocols have actually been loosened in schools because one of the main strategies of the government, also for economic reasons, is to keep the schools open, to keep kids in schools.

So for preschool and primary school, if you have COVID, you still go to school because the thinking is you're not going to spread it very much. They only shut a class if there are three separate cases. And for, you know, starting in middle school and high school, teachers and students are wearing masks. So the thinking is same thing. They do not shut a class with just one case. There have to be three and separate cases for them to close a class down.

PFEIFFER: And, Rob, in Germany, how compliant or obedient are people? You know, this is a place that has - is viewed as having handled the pandemic better than most countries. Is that still true, and are people generally following the rules?

SCHMITZ: It depends. You know, compared to France, Germany's rules are actually pretty lax. There are only mask requirements if you are indoors. And out on the street here in Berlin, hardly anybody is wearing a mask. But despite these lenient restrictions, there are still people - young adults especially - who continue to ignore these rules. And Chancellor Angela Merkel has issued many warnings for them to be more disciplined about all of this.

PFEIFFER: And, Frank, what about in a city as large and diverse as London, are people following rules?

LANGFITT: Pretty well. I mean, right now, looking out at the station, almost everybody's wearing a mask - they're supposed to. Although, you know, one of the problems in places like pubs and one of the reasons that Boris Johnson wants to shut them down a little bit early is, you know, you get late into the evening, and people are drinking, and they're not social distancing. And we know that it's in those kinds of social environments that this virus spreads.

PFEIFFER: Rob, speaking of rules, Germans have reputations for being rule followers. And Germany, like the U.S., is a federal republic, a group of states. Has Germany had the problems that the U.S. has had in creating a coordinated approach to the pandemic, getting all the states on board?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. I mean, what's interesting about Germany is that each of its 16 states runs its own health care system and education system, so it's pretty decentralized. But one thing Merkel has done really well since the pandemic started is to have regular video conference meetings with all of the state premiers to ensure that, when it comes to coronavirus restrictions, that they're all on the same page. And that's been key to establishing this sense of unity throughout Germany when it comes to fighting this virus.

PFEIFFER: And then finally, Frank and Rob and Eleanor, I'd like to hear from each of you what life is like six months into the pandemic in the countries where you are as they face winter and the coming flu season. How much is it back to normal? How nervous are people about what's coming? Frank, would you start us off, tell us about London?

LANGFITT: Yeah, sure. I think that it's never gotten quite back to normal. And people have done what they've done in the States, I think, in big cities is they stayed home. But right now I feel like we're in an inflection point. And everybody - there's anxiety that we're in for a second wave that's going to be even worse in some ways than the first one. And in our home, my wife just went out and got a big freezer - it's like 5 feet tall - because we expect that - we don't know what food's going to be like in terms of access. And we're preparing for a long winter.

We've been talking to scientists throughout this. And this is the kind of advice that we're getting. People are really anxious now. And I almost feel like - this feels like - how should I put this? I mean, I feel like I've seen this movie. And I feel like we're heading back into another tough time. And the government isn't maybe moving quickly enough.

PFEIFFER: And, Eleanor in France, how's life there?

BEARDSLEY: People are tired of it, and they're steeling themselves for what's to come. But, you know, a friend of mine in New York described New York the other day as felt like post-World War II Europe with all the closed shops. And I thought, wow, everything is still open here. When you walk out on the streets, it's still Paris. And it's still functioning. The difference is only that everyone is wearing a mask.

PFEIFFER: And, Rob, Germany?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, the same. You know, life does seem like it's sort of returned to normal here. You know, but there is this sense of impending doom when you look at how the numbers of infected are creeping up, not only in Germany but across the border and other countries surrounding Germany. And as, you know, the winter season pushes everyone indoors, I think it also adds to that anxiety.

PFEIFFER: We hope to check in with all of you again in coming months. That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London, Eleanor Beardsley in France and Rob Schmitz in Germany. Thanks to all of you.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Sacha.

SCHMITZ: Great to talk, Sacha.

LANGFITT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.