- Numbers of new infections in Italy, France and Spain continue to fall.
- These countries have now begun the process of easing their lockdowns.
- Shops and factories will be among the first to resume operation.
From flattening one curve to getting ahead of another: three of the world’s hardest-hit nations are now preparing to ease the restrictions out in place to halt the spread of COVID-19.
After the US, the countries with the next-highest numbers of confirmed cases - Spain, Italy and France - have announced plans for cautious and gradual exits from their lockdowns. Here's a rundown of each country's plans as they take their first steps back towards a semblance of normality.
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The Spanish government has enforced one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns. Since restrictions began on 14 March, the country’s citizens have been forbidden from leaving their house unless it is to visit supermarkets, pharmacies or medical facilities or to walk the dog.
But following a sustained decrease in the rate of new infections, those restrictions are starting to be eased.
Spanish children under 14 years of age have been confined indoors for the past six weeks, but as of Sunday 26 April they are now allowed outside for an hour each day, although parks and playgrounds remain closed. From next weekend, adults will also be allowed out to exercise or to go for a walk. And in a televised address to the nation last week, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced that the gradual lifting of other restrictions would begin in the second half of May, assuming the rates of infection continue to decline - but “de-escalation would be slow”, he said.
Spain’s schools are not expected to reopen until September.
Early on in the crisis, Italy emerged as a major global coronavirus hotspot. The government’s response was to put the country into a strict lockdown, which began on 9 March; Italy was the first European nation to do so. Since late March, however, Italy’s numbers of new infections have declined steadily, and the country is now beginning to re-emerge into the spring sunshine.
On Sunday 26 April, following talks with regional and business leaders, Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte promised to start lifting restrictions from 4 May. On that date, parks will be reopened, people will be permitted to exercise outdoors once again and to visit relatives - as long as they observe social distancing and wear face masks. The country’s factories and building sites will also be allowed to reopen on 4 May, albeit with strict social distancing protocols in place. Restaurants will be permitted to serve takeaways at the same time, and - along with shops, hairdressers and museums - will reopen fully on 1 June.
Italy’s schools look set to remain closed until after the summer holidays, however.
On Tuesday 28 April, the French Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, will announce the government's plans to ease the country out of its lockdown. It seems timely; according to a recent poll, support for the lockdown among French citizens is now below 50%.
Restrictions will begin to be lifted from 11 May, according to reports. In a speech he will deliver to the National Assembly - the French parliament's lower house - Philippe is expected to outline a timetable for 17 priority areas, including the reopening of workplaces, increased testing, and bringing the country's public transport systems back up to speed.
The government has also suggested that restrictions on travel within France could also be lifted at the same time.
In an earlier televised address to the nation, meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron announced that France's schools and crèches would begin to reopen gradually from 11 May, although parents would not be compelled to send their children back into the classroom.
Arnaud Bernaert, Head of Health and Healthcare, World Economic Forum, said: "For those European countries where governments have started to ease restrictions, a controlled transition can be achieved with a number of measures. First, there should be clear evidence that COVID-19 has transitioned to a controlled phase. Sufficient health and medical capacity needs to be in place in case of rebound and health resources for treating non-COVID patients must be taken into consideration.
"Higher-risk settings such as senior living facilities and high-population concentration areas require continued observation to minimize outbreaks. Many countries have scaled up their testing numbers, and have started contact tracing – this can also help limit further imported cases. Finally, social distancing measures and remote working policies with engaged communities and employers will ensure the transition is co-ordinated in manageable stages."