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Can Europe’s summer reopening last?

The Delta variant of Covid-19 has left EU officials worried about a repeat of last year’s post-summer surge.

By Ido Vock

On Thursday 1 July, an EU-wide Covid-19 vaccine passport scheme will officially launch, allowing citizens quarantine-free travel across most of the bloc in time for the summer holidays. 

The certification scheme is the latest instance of EU borders and societies reopening after up to seven months of gruelling lockdowns. Across Europe, restaurants and bars are now open. A curfew in Italy has been dropped, as has a ban on late-night alcohol sales in Germany. The French government has said that nightclubs will be allowed to open indoors at 75 per cent capacity from 9 July, with mask-wearing recommended but not mandated. Stadiums hosting the delayed Euro 2020 football tournament are welcoming fans, albeit generally at reduced capacity. 

New daily cases of Covid-19 are running at under 30 per million in countries such as France and Germany, a far cry from the second wave last winter, when the figure was sometimes 20 or more times higher.

Moreover, vaccination rates across the EU have drastically sped up after a slow start. Just under half of the population of the EU have received at least one dose of the vaccine, figures which are a little below the US and about 15 per cent lower than the UK. The discrepancy between the EU and the UK/US on the share of their populations that have been fully vaccinated is greater. 

The mood across the EU is, in short, upbeat. Yet the worry among policymakers is that this summer may echo last year, when good weather caused Covid to virtually melt away – only to re-emerge with a vengeance in the autumn, ultimately killing over four times more Europeans during the second and third waves than the first. 

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Those waves were made deadlier by the Alpha variant, which scientists believe to be around 60 per cent more transmissible than earlier strains of coronavirus. The variant is thought to have emerged first in the UK before quickly becoming dominant in the EU and around the world. 

Now, it is the Delta variant which has officials worried. The mutation, believed to have emerged in India, is thought to be between 40 and 80 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha variant. According to Public Health England, it already accounts for the quasi-totality of new infections in Britain, where the caseload is now running at several times the EU average. 

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has called for an EU-wide quarantine regime on Brits entering the bloc to stem the spread of Delta. In truth, however, evidence suggests that Delta now accounts for a growing share of infections in France and Germany, though due to low levels of genomic testing, the true rate may be higher still. The European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), an EU agency, believes nine in 10 new infections in the EU will be caused by the Delta variant by the end of August. 

Things are different to last year. The vaccine programme means that the majority of the EU’s adults have some degree of antibody protection. Most available evidence suggests that a full course of vaccination works essentially as well against Delta as against previous variants. The UK’s surge in case numbers, driven by Delta, has not yet translated into a marked increase in hospitalisations and deaths. If that trend holds, it will mean that vaccines have turned a virulent disease into one which is for most people largely benign, meaning its risk can be managed without drastic restrictions.

Yet there are still good reasons for worry if caseloads do begin rising again. Relatively low vaccine uptake is one. Across the EU, around a third of over-80s are not yet fully vaccinated, according to the ECDC. Only 70 per cent of over-80s are fully vaccinated in France, 10 percentage points lower than the 75-79 age group. This discrepancy suggests the oldest – who are most vulnerable to death and serious disease – are either hesitant or hard to reach. A large number of vulnerable people remaining unprotected is not a big problem while background rates are as low as they are currently, but will become one if rates rise. 

All the same, across Europe, the mercury is up. Spirits are too, buoyed by the reopening of societies largely shuttered since the autumn. Officials are hoping they can ensure this year’s lockdown, now all but lifted, will be the last.

[See also: How the UK lost control of Covid-19 cases again]

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