Europe epicentre, China cases 'contained'

Health systems of several European countries are under pressure as coronavirus cases rise.
Health systems of several European countries are under pressure as coronavirus cases rise.

European countries have begun counting the cost of sweeping restrictions on social life imposed to contain a surge in coronavirus infections while officials in China say they think the country's latest outbreak has been contained.

As the pandemic raced ahead across the continent, Europe has moved back to the centre of the global pandemic, facing the prospect of a prolonged economic slump alongside a public health crisis which has so far resulted in more than 44 million infections and 1.1 million deaths worldwide.

France and Germany have imposed controls almost as strict as the lockdowns of the first phase of the crisis in March and April, shutting bars and restaurants and restricting movement while allowing schools and most businesses to remain open.

But the United Kingdom, the country with the largest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe, said it would stick with a system of local lockdowns despite a new study which showed cases in England doubling every nine days.

"The judgment of the government today is that a blanket national lockdown is not appropriate, would do more harm than good," Housing Minister Robert Jenrick told Times Radio.

Germany has set aside 10 billion euros ($A17 billion) to help small businesses hit by the new measures but Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said the economy was not experiencing an industrial collapse as it did in the initial phase of the pandemic.

"(The economy) is so strong that we can avoid sliding into a long period of recession," he said.

However he added output would not return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2022.

Governments have been desperate to avoid a repeat of earlier lockdowns but have been forced to move by the speed of new infections and a steadily increasing mortality rate across the continent as winter approaches.

Even the well-equipped health systems of countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland have been pushed close to their limits by the exponential surge in cases recorded this month.

On Thursday, Sweden, which alone among European countries never imposed a lockdown, reported its third record increase in cases in a matter of days.

"We're beginning to approach the ceiling for what the healthcare system can handle," chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell told a news conference, calling for a joint effort to curb the spread of the virus.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government had moved quickly to prevent intensive care facilities being overwhelmed and called for a joint effort to face the crisis.

"We are in a dramatic situation at the start of the cold season. It affects us all, without exception," Merkel told the Bundestag lower house of parliament, adding new restrictions to reduce social contact were "necessary and proportionate".

However she warned of difficult months ahead and said: "The winter will be hard."

While officials in Paris and Berlin hope that the month-long lockdowns will be enough to slow the spread of the disease, there was little certainty about whether they would be enough for a return to even near-normality.

"We want to do everything so that French people can be with their families and their friends for the festivities at the end of the year," French Health Minister Olivier Veran said.

"Will it be the same? Possibly not."

While the latest restrictions have put a spotlight on Europe, the United States has also registered a surge in new coronavirus cases in the run-up to next week's presidential election, with more than 80,000 new cases and 1000 deaths reported on Wednesday.

"We are on a very difficult trajectory. We're going in the wrong direction," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, task force member and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

By contrast, many Asian countries have begun to relax controls as the disease has been brought under control, with Singapore announcing it would ease restrictions for visitors.

Officials in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang said on Thursday they believe they have contained the country's latest coronavirus outbreak.

All 23 newly active cases there were people who previously had tested positive but had not yet developed symptoms, according to the National Health Commission.

Thursday was the second straight day with testing not showing a spread of the virus.

The development appears to show that new infections have been curbed, said Wang Xijiang, deputy director of the center for disease prevention and control in Xinjiang's Kashgar prefecture.

More than 4.7 million people in Kashgar have been tested.

Australian Associated Press