- Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Austria are among the European countries taking steps to end the lockdown.
- Schools and shops are reopening - but leaders acknowledge this is a delicate balancing act.
As curves flatten and infection rates of the COVID-19 coronavirus start to fall, some European countries have started to lift their lockdowns and are easing their societies back towards some semblance of daily life.
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After Italy, Denmark was the second European country to announce a lockdown - and it did so before seeing any reported deaths from COVID-19.
Today, Denmark’s rapid response to the pandemic seems to be paying off.
While countries that went into lockdown later on, such as the UK, have yet to outline when or how restrictions will be eased, Denmark is slowly reopening for business – although Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen acknowledged that this process will be a delicate balancing act.
“This will probably be a bit like walking the tightrope,” Frederiksen said at a recent press conference. “If we stand still along the way we could fall and if we go too fast it can go wrong. Therefore, we must take one cautious step at a time.”
The first of those cautious steps, taken on 14 April, was to reopen the country’s daycare centres and primary schools. Not all parents are happy about this, however, and thousands are keeping their children at home.
Social distancing rules remain in place – gatherings or more than 10 people are still prohibited, for example – and the Danish government has made it clear that the process of easing restrictions is dependent on the continued stability of infection rates.
On 20 April, the Danish government also gave a host of other professions the green light to reopen, including hairdressers, tattooists and psychologists.
On 6 April, Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced a “resurrection after Easter”; restrictions will soon be eased in Austria, another early adopter of lockdown measures.
From 14 April, non-essential shops with a floor-space of less than 400 square metres – that's about the size of two tennis courts – were allowed to reopen, as well as DIY stores and garden centres. From 1 May, this will be extended to shopping centres, larger stores and hairdressers.
It’s not a complete return to normality, however. The government has made it mandatory to wear masks outdoors, and social distancing must continue.
It may be that not everyone is as keen to venture back outside as might be expected. Some recent media reports have suggested that many Austrian residents are staying home, despite the easing of restrictions.
The numbers of daily new cases in Norway has been falling since late March. At the time of writing, the country has reported 7,103 cases and 165 deaths from COVID-19. This relative success prompted Prime Minster Erna Solberg to announce on 7 April that “Norway has managed to get the virus under control”.
Norway’s kindergartens reopened on 20 April. Primary and some high schools, as well as universities and hair and beauty salons, will reopen one week later. Domestic travel is now permitted, but is strongly discouraged for all non-essential purposes.
To help protect the newly liberated population from a fresh spike in infections following its easing of restrictions, the Norwegian government has followed countries like South Korea and Singapore by launching a voluntary virus-tracking app that alerts users if they have been in contact with someone suspected of carrying the virus, and informs them if the have visited any infection hotspots. Despite some concerns over data privacy, a recent poll found that around half of the population would be happy to download it.
On Monday 20 April, Germany began to reopen for business. Shops with a floorspace less than 800 square metres – that's about the size of four tennis courts – were allowed to open their doors, along with car showrooms, bookstores and bicycle shops.
Lockdown restrictions will remain in place until 3 May, however. The government has announced plans to reopen some schools on 4 May, initially for students in their final years of primary or secondary school.
Switzerland has announced a three-stage plan to end its coronavirus shutdown, which began on 16 March. “We want to act as fast as possible but as slowly as necessary,” said Alain Berset, head of Switzerland's Department of Home Affairs.
On 27 April, an approved list of businesses – including hairdressers, hardware stores, beauty salons and flower shops – will be permitted to reopen.
At the same time, hospitals and medical practitioners such as dentists and physiotherapists will be able to resume carrying out non-essential procedures.
The next stage will begin on 11 May. Provided the infection rate remains stable, the country's primary schools will reopen on this date, as well as all retail premises that have not already done so.
On 8 June, Switzerland's secondary schools and higher learning institutions will also be allowed to reopen, as will its libraries, zoos and museums.