Germany's health minister has warned that Europe does not have enough vaccines to prevent a third wave of the coronavirus.
Jens Spahn's comments on Friday came on the day the country resumed vaccinations with the AstraZeneca vaccine, after four days of interruption.
"An honest analysis of the situation shows that there are not yet enough vaccines in Europe to stop the third wave by vaccination alone," the minister admitted.
"Even though deliveries of EU orders are now reliable, it will be several weeks before at-risk groups are fully vaccinated," he added. "It is only then that we can talk about society opening up."
Last weekend AstraZeneca announced further cuts to deliveries of its COVID-19 vaccine to the European Union, citing export restrictions for the move. An earlier projection of a reduction in supplies from the pharmaceutical giant, on whose vaccine many countries are relying, sparked a row with the EU.
Vaccinations resume after suspension
France and Italy have joined Germany in resuming AstraZeneca vaccinations on Friday, after a ruling from the European regulator following a scare over blood clots. So too have Bulgaria and Slovenia. Meanwhile Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands will resume next week.
However, Norway, Sweden and Denmark say they will continue their suspension of the AstraZeneca jab after separate investigations suggested a link with a small number of cases of serious illness.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) concluded on Thursday that the vaccine is "safe and effective", and that its "benefits outweigh its risks".
France qualified its decision on Friday, with a recommendation from the top health authority that the AstraZeneca jab be reserved for people aged over 55, instead of 50 previously. It cited rare but serious cases in Europe of blood clots among younger people, including three in France.
'Exponential' rise in infections
Jens Spahn, Germany's health minister, warned that infections were increasing, with a high proportion of new variants. The country has recorded more than 17,000 officially reported cases in 24 hours, around 5,000 more than a week ago.
The incidence rate reached 95.6 on Friday (against 9O on Thursday), very close to the 100 mark used as a benchmark for new restrictions.
Another senior health official warned of a "very clear exponential" increase in COVID-19 infections, linked in particular to the spread of the British variant.
"It is quite possible that at Easter we have a situation similar to the one we experienced before Christmas, with a very high number of cases, many serious cases and deaths, and overwhelmed hospitals," Lars Schaade, vice-president of the institute of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), told a news conference.
Angela Merkel and leaders of the 16 German regions will meet on Monday to decide on possible new restrictions. The country had been counting on the ramping up of its vaccination campaign to stem the increase in cases.
"However you interpret it, we must return to lockdown," said Karl Lauterbach, health expert from the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Restrictions tightened elsewhere in Europe
Some other European countries are also tightening pandemic restrictions amid a surge in new infections.
- Poland announced new lockdown measures this week to take effect from Saturday until at least April 9. They include the closure of hotels, theatres, cinemas, sports halls, as well as most shopping centre stores. The country’s rate of new COVID-19 cases has more than doubled since February, straining its health care system.
- Italy closed most of its classrooms at the beginning of this week and expanded areas where restaurants and cafes can do only takeout or delivery. The country's health experts say they are seeing an increasing number of patients who are middle-aged and younger.
- In France 16 areas in the country known as départements will move to lockdown from Friday amid a third wave of infections including the entirety of the region île-de-France, including Paris, and the northern region of the country. The Alpes-Maritimes region, where Nice is located, will also be locked down. Travel from the areas in lockdown will be banned.
- Despite a successful vaccination rate, Serbia announced a short nationwide lockdown of several days earlier this week, closing all nonessential shops and businesses. The country of 7 million people reported more than 5,000 new cases on Tuesday, its highest number in months.
- A surge of infections has led the government in Belgium to bring forward a meeting of Belgium's Consultative Committee that is expected to reconsider later Friday its decision to relax restrictions from next month. The health minister has spoken of the need to "retighten the screws", while the authorities have urged residents to limit their social contacts to the bare minimum and to step up remote working.