Covid 19 coronavirus: ‘New storm’ brewing as battered Europe extends lockdowns

European leaders are extending their lockdowns as Covid-19 ravages the region with vaccine rollouts not expected to help for months.

The UK mutant strain of coronavirus is tearing through the continent and health systems are struggling to cope with the surge in cases and deaths, with leaders warning this is now the worst period of the pandemic.

More than 26 million cases and 584,000 deaths have been reported in the European Union and United Kingdom, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Coronavirus jabs are supposed to be given in two doses around 21 days apart, but the UK is now spacing out doses by up to 12 weeks in its race to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as it can. Denmark is spacing out vaccines by up to six weeks, while Germany is also considering pushing back the second shot.

The UK is facing the worst situation in the region with more than three million cases and 83,000 deaths, and reported a record 1,564 deaths on Wednesday.

Politicians have already approved legislation that would allow England’s lockdown to continue to the end of March.

A study published on Wednesday found that almost half of intensive care unit workers were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression or anxiety, or turning to alcohol to cope with the unprecedented pressures the pandemic has piled on the UK health system.

Around one in seven reported recent thoughts of self-harm or of wanting to be dead, with nurses experiencing the highest levels of distress, according to the survey of 709 staff published in the Occupational Medicine journal.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News it was “impossible to know” when lockdowns would end and that the government will keep the restrictions in place “as long as they’re necessary.”

Asked about reports that patients could be transferred to hotels to free up hospital beds, he said the Government would “look at all options”.

Paramedics told news.com.au that ambulances were waiting up to nine hours outside hospitals swamped with Covid-19 patients. Some hospitals have had to divert patients, oxygen is being rationed and vast temporary mortuaries are being used to store bodies after hospital morgues reached capacity.

Italy, which has almost as many deaths as the UK at just under 80,000, will extend its state of emergency to the end of April, Health Minister Roberto Speranza said.

He warned that 12 of Italy’s 20 regions were at risk of tougher restrictions after a worsening of the Covid-19 situation including an increase in the number of people in intensive care.

“A new strong storm is brewing across Europe,” he noted, adding German Chancellor Angela Merkel “was right when she said that we are facing the toughest months of the pandemic”.

Speranza warned against “unforgivable” distractions with the country facing a crisis of government as it suffers its worst recession since World War II.

“Let’s keep political infighting, real or presumed electoral tensions, far and separate from the health of Italians,” he told the lower parliamentary chamber in a Covid-19 update.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn told Deutschlandfunk radio it would be another two or three months before the vaccination campaign really started to help, and that the country was likely to extend its restrictions into February.

The Netherlands is also extending lockdown measures by at least three weeks until February 9. “This decision does not come as a surprise, but it is an incredible disappointment,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte told a news conference, adding that the threat posed by the new variant was “very, very worrying”.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron met with senior ministers to discuss possible new measures. The nationwide curfew could be begin at 6pm instead of 8pm, French media reported.

Ireland became the world’s coronavirus epicentre last week, recording a higher infection rate than any other country, according to Our World in Data at the University of Oxford. Ireland reported around 1,323 Covid-19 cases per million people in the seven days to January 10.

Switzerland is expected to extend its lockdown restrictions by five weeks to the end of February.

At least 60 people have tested positive in the Alpine resort of Wengen in the past four weeks.

Officials in Bern said the new variant had been brought into the area by a single British tourist and was spreading fast among locals, with the Lauberhorn World Cup downhill race now cancelled.

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