Led by Italy Lockdown, Europe Struggles to Limit Coronavirus Spread

Europe struggled to find a unified response to the new coronavirus as Italy became the first democratic country since World War II to announce a nationwide lockdown.

As countries across the region put in place their own piecemeal measures to slow the spread of the highly infectious virus, Austria said it willblock travelers from Italy unless they can provide medical certificates showing they’re healthy. Schoolchildren in Madrid and university students in Portugal were asked to stay home.Air France canceled thousands of flights, Ireland scrapped St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and Madonna pulled out of concerts in Paris slated for Tuesday and Wednesday.

With people and businesses striving to work with the new restrictions, European leaders will hold an emergency call on Tuesday afternoon to discuss a response.On the cusp of turning into a pandemic, the virus has claimed more than 520 lives on the continent. Close to 500 of those deaths have been in Italy. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called this the country’s“darkest hour,” ordering Italians to “stay at home” as he explained that “we are forced to impose sacrifices.”

“We’re at the very beginning of this epidemic,” French President Emmanuel Macron said after a visit to the Necker children’s hospital in Paris, calling for pragmatism and flexibility as authorities respond to the outbreak. “We’re prepared.”

Globally, the number of those infected has surpassed 113,000, with deaths exceeding 3,900. While China, where the virus originated, is seeing the pace of new infections slowing, there are no indications its spread is in check in Europe. Cases have now been found in all 27 EU member nations.

“This cannot be business as usual,” saidEU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, speaking to European lawmakers in Brussels. “We are facing an exceptional situation.”

Not every leader is on the same page on how best to respond. In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it doesn’t make sense to restrict gatherings or travel yet. “What’s happening in other countries doesn’t necessarily mirror what’s happening here,” Johnson said late Monday.

Still, such measures are swiftly becoming de rigueur elsewhere in Europe. In their Tuesday conference call, EU leaders will probably discuss limitations for travel to and from the most affected areas, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told reporters in Copenhagen. “I will not propose to close the border, but we will have a discussion this afternoon about how we handle internal travel patterns in the EU,” she said.

In Spain, where confirmed cases more than doubled between Sunday and Monday, authorities closed schools and universities in the Madrid area for two weeks starting March 11. Supermarkets were inundated with shoppers, while soccer matches are going to be played in empty stadiums.

In Germany, Health Minister Jens Spahn pushed for gatherings of more than 1,000 people to be canceled, but left the final call to local health authorities. France barred gatherings of 50 or more people in clusters where infections have soared. Austria is banning outdoor events with more than 500 participants and indoor activities with more than 100 people. Ireland halted St. Patrick’s Day parades, which typically attract half a million spectators, with thousands traveling from overseas.

Still, the restrictions in Italy are by far the most stringent. After trying to lock down the northern region of Lombardy, Conte moved to widen curbs by decree to the entire nation of more than 60 million people. Schools and universities will be closed nationwide, all public events will be canceled, and Italians won’t be allowed to travel without a business or health-related justification until April 3. Conte’s decision came after the number of cases in the country soared by 25% to 9,172 on Monday.

“All of Italy is now closed,” Milan dailyCorriere della Sera wrote on its front page Tuesday. “Everyone at home,” Rome-based la Repubblica wrote.

The business community appeared to rally around the prime minister on Tuesday. Marcella Panucci, director general of employers lobbyConfindustria, said in an interview withBloomberg TV that the full lockdown was justified.

“We fear a shock on credit,” she warned, calling on the government to offer guarantees and investment to shore up an economy under siege.

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Companies elsewhere are taking their own measures.Deutsche Bank AG on Monday said it’s splitting investment bank teams in London and Frankfurt after an employee in its Frankfurt headquarters tested positive for the virus. The board ofBanco Santander SA asked shareholders to remote into its April 2 annual meeting and make use of proxy-granting. The bank also asked employees in Madrid to work from home for 15 days.

In Italy, the impact of the lockdown won’t become clear for at least a month, Giovanni Rezza, head of the infectious diseases department at the Superior Health Institute told Corriere della Sera.

“What matters more than government measures is how individuals behave,” he said. “People haven’t realized how much they’re at risk.”

With the economy already on the brink of recession, Conte will ask parliament Wednesday for authorization to deviate from planned deficit targets to fund an economic stimulus package.

The government may increase the value of the package, including more health and spending and help for businesses and families, to about 10 billion euros ($11.4 billion) from 7.5 billion euros. It is also negotiating with banks to provide breaks from debt payments, including mortgages, and other additional fiscal measures, Deputy Finance Minister Laura Castelli said in a radio interview.

— With assistance by Tommaso Ebhardt, Nikos Chrysoloras, Viktoria Dendrinou, Joost Akkermans, Joao Lima, Marthe Fourcade, Boris Groendahl, Steven Arons, Zoe Schneeweiss, Rodrigo Orihuela, Rudy Ruitenberg, Sonia Sirletti, Morten Buttler, Thomas Gualtieri, and Macarena Munoz Montijano

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