Medical-grade face masks rather than cloth coverings could become mandatory in a number of European countries to help contain the rapid spread of highly contagious Covid variants first identified in the UK and South Africa.
Angela Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states agreed on Tuesday that either single-use surgical FFP1 masks or more protective FFP2 filtering facepiece respirators should be worn in the workplace, on public transport and in shops.
The French government is considering whether to adopt formal advice from its health advisory committee to make so-called clinical masks mandatory, because even multi-layer fabric masks do not offer enough protection against the new strains.
Merkel said the threat of the B117 coronavirus variant first discovered in Britain was a key factor behind the German government’s decision to extend and tighten lockdown measures, saying the country faced “British conditions” if it failed to stop its spread. Schools and nurseries as well as non-essential shops and hairdressers will remain closed in Germany until at least 14 February.
“If we get British conditions, we would not be talking about whether schools should open or not, but about ambulances and overcrowded hospitals,” Merkel said. “But if all the rules are kept to, we have a fair chance.”
As the Dutch government announced plans for its first nationwide curfew since the second world war, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday that the UK variant had spread to at least 60 countries – 10 more than seven days ago. It said the South African variant, which is also believed to be more transmissible, had been reported in 23 countries and territories.
France’s high council for public health decided at the weekend that many cloth masks – often preferred because they can be washed and reused – did not guarantee protection against the new variants.
Daniel Camus, of the Pasteur Institute in Lille and a member of the council, told French radio on Wednesday: “Category 2 or fabric masks only filter 70%, while category 1 masks, like surgical masks, can go as high as 95% if worn properly.
“As the variant is more easily transmitted, it is logical to use masks with the highest filtering power. We are not questioning the masks used up to now … but as we have no new weapons against the new strains, the only thing we can do is to improve the weapons we already have.”
The UK variant is expected to spread rapidly through France in the coming month, hospital chiefs have said, prompting fears of another strict lockdown and reports that restaurants – closed apart from for takeaways since October – may not reopen until April.
“We know this variant spreads much more quickly and, above all, is more infectious,” said Karine Lacombe, the head of infectious diseases at Paris’s Saint Antoine hospital. “We fear things will become extremely tough, especially in March. On a local level … when the number of admissions in ICU units ramp up, we are probably going to need more restrictive measures than the curfew.”
The seven-day rolling average of new infections in France is at its highest since mid-November. France introduced a national 6pm curfew last week.
The Dutch parliament will be asked to agree to a strict night-time curfew running from 8.30pm to 4.30am from this weekend until at least 9 February, the prime minister, Mark Rutte, has said, and flights from Britain, South Africa and several other countries will be banned from Saturday.
“We do not want to take such a big and drastic decision without parliamentary support,” said Rutte, who is acting in a caretaker capacity after his cabinet resigned last week over a child benefits scandal. “We will get through all this, but first we have to brace ourselves one more time as the British corona variant and other more contagious corona variants are coming our way. We must do our utmost to stay as far ahead of the third wave as possible.”
People will not be allowed out except for childcare, dog walking, or if they are able to provide a document from an employer proving the necessity of their movement. Shops must close by 8.15pm.
As a shortage of vaccines and logistical problems continue to hamper Europe’s national inoculation programmes, Italy said it was preparing to take legal action against Pfizer over delivery delays.
The country received 48,000 vaccines for this week, out of an allocated 397,000, and was left short by 165,000 last week. The US pharmaceutical company angered several EU countries last week after announcing temporary delays in shipments due to a production upgrade aimed at boosting output.
Domenico Arcuri, Italy’s Covid-19 emergency commissioner, said he had the support of regional leaders to take legal action in the coming days. “Protecting the health of Italian citizens is not a negotiable issue,” Arcuri said. “The vaccination programme cannot be slowed down.”