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Third wave: COVID-19 rules and regulations in Europe

March 22, 2021

As Easter approaches, a number of countries in Europe are steeling for a third wave and struggling with sluggish COVID-19 vaccine rollouts.

An empty shopping street
Germany is witnessing a renewed surge in infectionsImage: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

After a brief period of respite at the start of the year, the seven-day incidence rate in Europe has risen since mid-February by 40%, with 240 new cases per 100,000 people (as of March 18, 2021). 

According to the Our World in Data research team at the UK's Oxford University, it's up by 60% across the EU, with 318 confirmed new cases per 100,000 people. Yet not everywhere is seeing a third wave. 

While the steepest increase is in Estonia, where the seven-day COVID-19 rate has tripled since early February to more than 1,100, the incidence rate is declining in the neighboring countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Russia. Britain and Spain are also so far unaffected by a third wave. 

But the incidence rate is soaring in a number of countries in central and south-eastern Europe, prime among them the Czech Republic, Montenegro and Hungary, and the figure has almost doubled in Germany in the last month, although Germany has experienced relatively low infection and death rates so far during the pandemic.

But there's hope on the horizon. The European death rate continues to fall. Whether this means that the risk of fatality is in decline can only be assessed in one to two weeks, because that is how long it takes for COVID-19 to take a fatal course. 

For now there appears to be no correlation between the course of the illness and the progress of vaccination programs from country to country.

Varying degrees of efficiency

Boris Johnson gives the thumbs up as a nurse looks on
British PM Boris Johnson received his first dose of the Oxford-AstraZenca vaccine at the weekend Image: Frank Augstein/AP Photo/picture alliance

While Israel has become the world leader in vaccinating its population against COVID-19, Britain has managed to pull off the fastest rollout in Europe.

According to Our World in Data, as of March 19, 41.65 vaccines have been administered per 100 people in the UK. Hungary's vaccine program is the next most successful in Europe, where 20.65 doses have been administered per 100 people. The European average is 12.92, which is slightly higher than in the EU (12.54) and Germany (12.25). 

The UK's vaccine rollout began two weeks earlier than in the EU. It's also progressing at a faster rate because the priority is to give a first dose. Even the under-60s with no underlying conditions are getting vaccinated, and the government has pledged to offer the country's entire adult population a first dose by July. 

So far, its strategy is proving more successful than the EU's, which is also struggling with a vaccine shortage.

Some countries, including Hungary, are now administering the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, which has not yet been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Israel starts vaccinating Palestinian laborers

The AstraZeneca controversy

Empty chairs in a vaccination center
Use of the AstraZenca vaccine was temporarily suspended in GermanyImage: Thilo Schmuelgen/REUTERS

The vaccine rollout in a number of countries has also been hampered by doubts about the British-Swedish vaccine AstraZeneca. From the outset, there were concerns about its efficacy and possible side effects, not just in Germany. It was seen as less effective than the BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and reportedly also led to severe side effects such as fever and a general sense of being unwell.

Consequently, many people due to be vaccinated canceled their appointments when they realized they would receive an AstraZeneca shot. Then, in mid-March, reports of people — mainly middle-aged women — developing blood clots soon after receiving a dose, dealt rollout efforts a further blow when a number of countries suspended use of the vaccine. These did not include the UK, where the vaccine was developed.

After the EMA deemed the shot "safe and effective" several countries, including Germany, began using it again. Spain will resume use in the course of the week, while in France it will only be given to people over 55, when there is a decreased thrombosis risk.

Scandinavian countries are continuing to suspend its use while they review the EMA conclusion.

Travel restrictions

In welcome news to many, Germany has taken a number of holiday destinations off its high-risk list, including the Spanish island of Mallorca, the Algarve in Portugal and the Croatian island of Istria. The only actual country currently not designated high-risk is Iceland.

Mallorca braces for tourists

Holidays in other places are theoretically possible but the German Foreign Ministry warns against unnecessary travel to European countries deemed a risk area or high-incidence by the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin. 

Cossing borders also remains complicated. In Germany, for example, anyone entering the country from a country deemed a risk area or high-incidence has to  carry out a digital registration, according guidelines laid out by the Health Ministry. A hard copy is also permissible. There is then a compulsory five-day quarantine period and you must, within a maximum of 48 hours after entering the country, also be able to provide proof that you are not infected with the coronavirus. The authorities may demand you submit this proof up to 10 days after your entry into the country. Home quarantine can be lifted at the earliest after five days with a negative test result.

Tourists with suitcases stand in line at an airport check in counter
Germany has lifted its travel warning for MallorcaImage: Moritz Frankenberg/dpa/picture alliance

In order to prevent the spread of new coronavirus variants in Germany, the government has banned entry from areas where these have occurred.

In some countries, the rules are even stricter – such as blanket bans on travel without urgent reason. A negative test result is compulsory almost everywhere if you are planning to remain longer than 48 hours, including in popular tourist destinations such as Greece and Austria. In Switzerland, anyone entering the country from a risk area is obligated to go into immediate quarantine for 10 days. As of March 22, the only area in Germany Switzerland deems a risk zone is the eastern state of Thuringia.

DW-Redakteur Jan D. Walter Kommentarbild App PROVISORISCH
Jan D. Walter Editor and reporter for national and international politics and member of DW's fact-checking team.