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Coronavirus: European nations tighten restrictions ahead of Christmas

A number of European countries have tightened coronavirus restrictions ahead of Christmas following a surge of infections in recent weeks.

The Netherlands has entered a five-week lockdown, with non-essential shops, theatres and gyms all closing.

Germany will enter a hard lockdown from Wednesday after the number of infections there hit record levels.

Meanwhile, Europe’s medicines regulator is set to meet sooner than planned to consider approving a vaccine.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) will now meet on 21 December to discuss whether the German-developed Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine should be rolled out around the bloc. That vaccine has already been approved by regulators in the UK and the US.

The body was initially scheduled to meet on 29 December, but it brought forward that date following pressure from member states and a rise in cases.

In recent weeks, governments around the continent have been wrestling with difficult questions about whether to ease restrictions in time for the holiday period.

But the recent wave of infections in some nations has prompted governments to halt plans to loosen the rules.

What measures are countries taking?

The five-week lockdown in the Netherlands is the strictest set of measures announced in the country since the pandemic began.

Non-essential shops, cinemas, hairdressers and gyms have all closed and schools will follow suit on Wednesday. People have also been told to refrain from booking non-essential travel abroad until mid-March.

But restrictions will be eased slightly for three days over Christmas, when Dutch households are allowed three instead of two guests.

Elsewhere, schools and non-essential shops will also close in Germany from Wednesday. Restaurants, bars and leisure centres have already been shut there since November.

The new German lockdown will run from 16 December to 10 January, but there will be a slight easing over Christmas when one household will be able to host a maximum of four close family members.

France has lifted its national lockdown, but the government said the infection rate had not lowered sufficiently for a further easing.

This means theatres and cinemas will remain shut as will bars and restaurants. A nationwide curfew will also be imposed from 20:00 to 06:00. The curfew will be lifted on Christmas Eve but not on New Year’s Eve.

Meanwhile, Italy’s daily death toll is still close to 500 and the government is considering a further tightening of measures over Christmas.

The exact details are unclear, but a new lockdown could come into place between Christmas night and New Year. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte described the potential lockdown as a “new squeeze”.

Spain has also seen a rebound in infections, and top health official Fernando Simón has warned of a “delicate” situation ahead of Christmas.

The Spanish government has approved a set of rules for the period between 23 December and 6 January.

Travel between regions will be allowed, providing people are visiting friends and family, and social gatherings will be limited to 10 people.

And what about the vaccine?

The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, welcomed the decision to bring forward the EMA meeting on whether to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“Every day counts,” she wrote on Twitter. “[It is] likely that the first Europeans will be vaccinated before the end of 2020.”

German Health Minister Jens Spahn echoed Ms von der Leyen’s view.

“The goal is to get approval before Christmas,” he told a press conference in Berlin. “We want to start vaccinating in Germany before the end of the year.”

In a statement, the EMA said it would only approve the vaccine “once the data on the quality, safety and effectiveness of the vaccine are sufficiently robust and complete”.

It added that it would meet as planned on 12 January to make a decision on the separate Moderna vaccine.

The Moderna vaccine requires temperatures of around -20C for shipping – similar to a regular freezer. The Pfizer jab, meanwhile, requires temperatures closer to -75C which makes transport more difficult. (BBC News Online)

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