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COVID-19: Protests across Europe rail against pandemic restrictions as infections soar

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By Euronews  with AFP, AP
Protesters take part in a demonstration against the ongoing coronavirus Covid-19 restrictions in Liestal, near Basel, Switzerland, on March 20, 2021.
Protesters take part in a demonstration against the ongoing coronavirus Covid-19 restrictions in Liestal, near Basel, Switzerland, on March 20, 2021.   -   Copyright  STEFAN WERMUTH / AFP

Thousands of people demonstrated on Saturday in several European countries against coronavirus restrictions, on the day France and Poland began imposing new partial lockdowns and as other nations consider similar moves to curb soaring infections.

Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Romania, Serbia, Poland, France and Britain all saw demonstrations of varying magnitude and with various local factors coming into play.

Across Europe, protesters railed against the "dictatorship" of pandemic health restrictions and what they see as an attack on fundamental freedoms.

But the demonstrations also featured a strong element of pandemic denial, fuelled by misinformation. "Stop the Corona terror" or "COVID is a hoax" were common slogans on signs.

Some rallies degenerated into clashes with the police. In the UK at least 36 people were arrested and several police officers injured during an anti-lockdown protest in London. A similar protest took place in Manchester, with no reports of arrests.

Police had warned against violating a ban on most group meetings; civil rights campaigners and politicians are demanding a change in the law to allow protests as an exception to pandemic restrictions.

There were clashes in Kassel, in central Germany, where federal police brought in beforehand used pepper spray, batons and water cannons to deal with protesters as an estimated 20,000 turned out despite a court ban. Police said several people were detained.

Many didn't comply with infection-control protocols such as wearing face masks. Some protesters attacked officers and several journalists, the dpa news agency reported. There also were confrontations between the demonstrators and counter-protesters.

Various groups, most of them far-right opponents of government regulations to fight the pandemic, had called for protests on Saturday in cities across the country.

In Berlin a gathering of around 500 far-right protesters was outnumbered by a counter-demonstration double the size.

Virus infections have gone up again in Germany in recent weeks, with the new British variant dominant, and the government is set to decide next week on how to react.

On Friday Chancellor Angela Merkel said the country will have to apply an “emergency brake” and reverse some recent relaxations of restrictions.

In Finland, police estimated that about 400 people, packed tightly together without masks, gathered in the capital, Helsinki, to protest against government restrictions. Earlier, hundreds marched on parliament. Smaller demonstrations were scheduled in other Finnish cities.

Helsinki police tweeted that the protests took place peacefully but violated rules on social distancing and public gatherings.

More than 1,000 anti-vaccination protesters took to the streets in Romania's capital of Bucharest amid a surge of COVID-19 infections there.

The largely mask-less crowd honked horns, waved national flags, and chanted messages such as “Block vaccination,” and “Stop the fear!”.

Romania’s far-right AUR party has strongly backed a movement linked to nationalism that planned anti-vaccination demonstrations in recent weeks.

In Austria, about 1,000 people protested against virus measures near Vienna's central train station. Police reprimanded several who were not wearing masks and remaining too close together, news agency APA reported.

In Switzerland, more than 5,000 protesters met for a silent march in the community of Liestal 15 kilometres southeast of Basel, local media reported. Most didn't wear masks and some held up banners with slogans like “Vaccinating kills.”

This wave of discontent coincided with the entry into force on Saturday of a third lockdown in much of France including Paris, affecting 21 million people. Other areas could soon experience similar measures as hospital ICU units become saturated.

Poland also began a partial nationwide confinement -- the fourth since the start of the pandemic. Despite the restrictions a "March for Freedom" was held in protest in Warsaw.

It comes against a background of a surge in coronavirus infections across Europe, which slow vaccine rollouts have been unable to stem.

On Friday Germany's health minister said supplies of vaccines in Europe were inadequate to prevent a third wave of the pandemic.

Meanwhile in the UK plentiful supplies have enabled the authorities to vaccinate half the adult population. Friday was a record day, with more than 700,000 either first or second doses administered.