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COVID-19 in Europe: France and Poland begin new lockdowns to stem soaring infections

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By Euronews with AFP, AP
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People walk on a pedestrian street in Paris with non-essential shops shut on the first day of a one-month lockdown  in the Ile-de-France region on March 20, 2021.
People walk on a pedestrian street in Paris with non-essential shops shut on the first day of a one-month lockdown in the Ile-de-France region on March 20, 2021.   -   Copyright  ALAIN JOCARD/AFP
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France's new semi-lockdown suffered an immediate glitch on Saturday, as the government quickly did away with a cumbersome form-filling procedure for people wishing to leave their homes.

The people of Poland and a third of the French population have been feeling the impact of new lockdowns on Saturday to varying degrees, in the latest bid by authorities to stem the rising coronavirus tide.

Much of Europe is experiencing a surge in infections, prompting several countries to ponder fresh restrictions faced with an ongoing shortage of vaccines that Germany's health minister said left the continent unable to prevent a third wave of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the European Union has again stepped up the pressure on pharmaceutical companies to speed up their vaccine delivery, threatening AstraZeneca in particular with an export ban if it fails to meet commitments.

'Complex' red tape measure ditched

In France, some 21 million people are affected by the new measures across 16 départements, in Paris and much of the north of the country as well as in Alpes-Maritimes in the south. The French can leave their homes for unlimited periods within a 10-kilometre radius. Travel between regions is banned unless for urgent reasons.

The original plan was to oblige people wanting to go out under the 10-kilometre rule to complete a two-page questionnaire containing a list of 15 different potential reasons. But it was immediately mocked on social media as the zenith of French bureaucracy and lasted only half a day before the government indicated the demand would be ditched.

"I agree with you, the certificate is complex," interior ministry spokeswoman Camille Chaize said on French TV on Saturday morning. The prime minister's office said it was "considering a simplification" of the complicated process, the idea being to allow an ID card or proof of address instead.

Most shops are closed but there are exemptions: florists, chocolate makers (due to Easter), music shops, hairdressers and shoemakers can remain open. The arrangements were described by the head of the main employers' organisation as "bureaucratic madness".

The measures are more flexible and less restrictive than a year ago, when the first lockdown was imposed on the country as the new disease took hold. The government backed off ordering a tough lockdown, despite an increasingly alarming situation in hospitals with a rise in the number of COVID-19 patients.

Some in Paris saw little difference from a normal Saturday. "I don't see any change, apart from shops closed," one man told AFP as he walked along the banks of the River Seine with his daughter in the midst of cyclists and joggers.

Although exercise is allowed in the lockdown areas, large groups or picnics are not, and across France an overnight curfew remains in place.

On Friday, hours before the new measures took effect, some 400 kilometres of traffic jams were reported around the outskirts of French capital as people left the city to escape the impact. The volume of traffic and train reservations were both up by 20% on normal levels, France's transport minister said, adding that this was much less than just before the start of the second lockdown last autumn.

Poland locks down, Germany warns of more restrictions

For Poland the new lockdown, imposed for three weeks, is nationwide — albeit less restrictive than the one imposed a year ago. More people in the central European nation are on respirators than at any time since the start of the pandemic and children make up a greater percentage of those hospitalised.

Officials blame the surge on a more transmissible mutation first identified in Britain that is spreading like wildfire in the country, and they say the worst is yet to come.

The move is an about-turn after the Polish government eased restrictions in February — running against the trend in many other European countries — allowing hotels, museums, cinemas, theatres and swimming pools to open under conditions.

From Sunday, Germany is to restrict border crossings with Poland, a country now classed as a "high-risk" zone by the health body the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). People entering Germany from Poland will have to present a negative test for the virus. Cyprus and Bulgaria — which announced a new 10-day lockdown this week — have also been put in the same category.

Germany itself could face a return to stricter lockdown measures by Easter, officials have warned.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday the country would have to apply an “emergency brake” to reverse some recent relaxations of restrictions as coronavirus infections accelerate. Infection rates in the country are “now clearly exponential,” said Lars Schaade, RKI's deputy head.

Hungary, meanwhile, extended lockdown restrictions for another week as a powerful surge breaks records each day — despite the fact that the country has the second-highest vaccination rate in the EU after Malta.

In Bosnia, which is not in the EU, soaring infections prompted a lockdown taking effect in the capital on Friday. The Balkan nation of 3.3 million has yet to start mass vaccination of its citizens and has kept relaxed measures and ski resorts open throughout the winter season.

EU warns vaccine makers over supplies

In a message to pharmaceutical companies on Saturday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said AstraZeneca in particular could face export bans to countries outside the EU if it didn’t quickly deliver the promised amount of vaccines to the 27-nation bloc.

“We have the possibility to ban planned exports,” Ursula von der Leyen said in an interview with German media group Funke. “This is a message to AstraZeneca: You fulfill your part of the deal toward Europe before you start to deliver to other countries."

Vaccine rollouts have repeatedly stumbled across Europe. The UK is a notable exception: the outbreak there has receded, and the country has been widely praised for its vaccination campaign. However, like the rest of Europe it announced this week that it too would be hit by supply shortages.

Countries across the continent — including France, Germany and Italy — resumed vaccinations with the AstraZeneca shot on Friday. It followed a four-day suspension amid reports of a small number of blood clots, casting doubt on a vaccine that is critical to ending the coronavirus pandemic.

Leaders sought to reassure their populations that it is safe, with British and French prime ministers among several politicians to receive first jabs.

Jean Castex, 55, said he stepped up because he wanted to show full confidence in the AstraZeneca shot, even though he is not yet eligible under France’s rules. Boris Johnson, 56, said he "cannot recommend it too highly” on leaving the hospital after his jab.

Slovenia's President Borut Pahor and Prime Minister Janez Jansa also got the AstraZeneca shot on Friday. Italian Premier Mario Draghi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said they would get it when it was their turn.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) concluded on Thursday that the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine was "safe and effective", with the benefits outweighing the risks.

However, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark said they would not be lifting their suspensions while investigations into the vaccine continued. France's health authority has recommended its use only for people aged 55 and over.