European countries are poised to tighten coronavirus crisis restrictions as soaring infection rates stoke alarm across the continent, sending stocks to their lowest level since May.
Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, was due to hold talks on Wednesday with premiers of the country’s 16 states about proposed new curbs, while France’s president Emmanuel Macron will give a televised address to the nation in the evening.
The region-wide Stoxx 600 index was down 3 per cent in afternoon trading and has lost more than 5 per cent since the end of last week as local markets in Frankfurt, Paris and London have endured bouts of selling. Wall Street stocks opened sharply lower, with the US benchmark S&P 500 down 1.8 per cent in early trading and the Nasdaq Composite down by a similar margin.
In Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, announced plans to improve EU-wide coronavirus testing and tracing as part of a package of measures triggered by the pandemic’s resurgence in Europe. Charles Michel, her counterpart at the European Council of EU leaders, has said the bloc must act now to “avoid a tragedy”.
Speaking ahead of a videoconference of EU premiers and presidents on Thursday, Ms von der Leyen told reporters that the Covid-19 situation was “very serious” and required a stronger EU response.
“Courageous steps taken now will help save lives and protect livelihoods,” she said. “No member state will emerge safely from this pandemic until everyone does.”
The Commission wants to extend the linked network of national contact tracking apps launched by Germany, Italy and Ireland last week to as many as possible of the EU’s other 24 states. It said 17 national Covid-19 contact tracing apps were currently based on decentralised systems that could be made become interoperable, with others in the pipeline.
Prof Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a special adviser to Ms von der Leyen, warned that the numbers of new infections now emerging in the EU were “really staggering”.
“The resurgence we are seeing now after the initial successes over the summer shows how fragile these gains are,” he said. “We kind of relaxed too much the measures that are basically about behaviour — [and] we are paying a high price.”
Ms Merkel wants German state leaders to close restaurants and bars but keep schools and nurseries open, according to a draft proposal of the measures reported by Reuters. Fitness studios, discos, cinemas, theatres, opera houses and concert venues would also shut.
In France, the government has yet to indicate what measures Mr Macron will announce. It said on Tuesday that, without tougher restrictions, within two weeks patient numbers in intensive care could reach the peak seen during the pandemic’s first wave in April.
On Tuesday, France reported 523 Covid-19 deaths during the previous 24 hours, the highest total since April 22. In Germany, coronavirus cases rose by 11,409 to 449,275 on Tuesday.
The trends in the EU’s two leading powers reflect a wider continental tilt as countries scramble to deal with large rises in case numbers. Some have said they fear hospitals will be overwhelmed unless more severe social controls are imposed.
Belgium, headquarters of the EU, has become the worst affected country of the 31 comprising the European Economic Area and the UK, according to data published on Tuesday by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Belgium had a 14-day cumulative number of 1,390.9 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people, ahead of the Czech Republic on 1,379.8 and Luxembourg on 760.4. France suffered 629.4 cases, the UK 415.6 and Germany 144.3.
The European Council’s Mr Michel, who will chair the EU leaders’ teleconference on Thursday, said in a blog published late on Tuesday that within weeks the pandemic situation in Europe had “escalated from worrying to alarming”.
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