Shouldn’t Europe have whipped the coronavirus by now? We know what works and with multiple vaccines available, strategic lockdowns, mask-wearing requirements, restrictions on social gatherings and a well-funded, universal public health system Europe should be on top of it. And yet across the continent, infections, hospitalisations and deaths are rising, and that’s making travellers nervous. If you’re thinking of a European trip in 2022, what are the prospects?
It’s not all bad news
Not all of Europe is in the same boat. Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Croatia are experiencing the highest numbers of infections relative to their populations. Austria recorded its highest ever figure on November 19, 2021. Germany’s highest was just two days before. In the southern European countries – Portugal, Spain, Italy and Malta – cases are also rising, but at a far slower rate. Against Germany’s current daily infection rate of 66 cases per 100,000 of its population, Italy is recording 17 cases while for Spain the figure is 13. The UK is also trending upward, with 64 cases daily per 100,000, but still well short of its peak recorded in January 2021. In Australia, the daily figure is just five for every 100,000.
Why the disparity?
In Germany, 68 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. The figure for Austria is 66 per cent. The UK figure is 69 per cent. Less than 75 per cent is considered too low to suppress the spread of the virus. In Italy, Spain and Portugal, higher percentages of their populations are fully vaccinated – 73, 80 and 87 per cent respectively. In the northern spring of 2021 the German government imposed a hard lockdown, closing non-essential businesses and introducing a night-time curfew. Those rules were relaxed later in the year and the relatively low vaccination rate coupled with the more infectious Delta variant is seen in the rapidly rising case numbers.
The onset of winter is another reason for the spike. It’s a pattern that emerged over the northern hemisphere winter of 2020-21 and it appears to be repeating in the current northern winter. More time is spent indoors, we’re more likely to be in contact with those who are infected and that’s a petri dish for the infection to spread. It’s become evident that Europe’s more northerly countries are experiencing higher case numbers than those around the Western Mediterranean, although those southern countries also have higher rates of vaccination compliance.
Both Germany and Austria have toughened up their rules, requiring proof of full vaccination or recovery from COVID-19 for entry to hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, leisure centres and cultural institutions. Austria is mandating a booster for anyone who received their second initial shot nine months or more previously. The country is closed to foreign travellers until December 13.
Do the numbers really matter?
It’s not only the rising number of infections that causes alarm, it’s also the government’s response to those numbers that matters. The higher the infection rate, the greater the likelihood of lockdowns, and visiting a country in lockdown isn’t going to be a fun holiday.
If the trend of 2021 is repeated in 2022, you could expect the number of infections to decline progressively in Western Europe, starting from about March and continuing until September, although there were a couple of anomalies such as the July spikes recorded in the Netherlands and the UK.
There are many factors that could scuttle any predictions, and the coronavirus is not done yet. A potent new variant, dubbed Omicron, has emerged from southern Africa, sparking the same kind of alarm as the Delta variant caused when it first appeared late in 2020.
Is it safe to even think about travel to Europe?
Thinking about, certainly, but as far as making any commitments, you might be better off delaying for the time being. If or when you decide to go, there are strategies that will help keep you safe.
A country with low infections, a high proportion of the population vaccinated and a solid health system is a safer bet. You’re also less likely to encounter lockdowns. One of the best resources for separating the winners is Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center website where you can search country-by-country for the latest information. At a glance you can see whether cases are increasing, how far they are from the peak figures and the percentage of the population fully vaccinated.
Masks have proven to be an effective barrier against infection. If local authorities advise but do not require mask wearing it’s a good idea to cover up.
Booster shots are being rolled out in several Western European countries. In the UK more than 16 million people have already had a booster. As well as protecting your health, a booster shot might become a requirement to ensure freedom of travel.
Finally, don’t rush. I’m planning to go to Italy in May, and that’s plenty of time to see what’s happening with infection rates.