Europe’s second wave offers lessons for Australia’s summer

After enjoying a northern summer with limited restrictions – having largely contained the initial wave of infections – Europe is confronting a COVID-19 second wave that is testing the ability of governments to reimpose strict lockdown measures despite record numbers of infections.

Britain reported more than 15,000 positive cases on Saturday, with the city of Liverpool and the north-west of England the latest hotspots. As hospitals once again begin to fill, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce new restrictions for those worst affected on Monday.

Regional governments expecting to be worst hit by the new rules are furious they have not been consulted, and there is growing concern the financial relief being offered to those who will once again have to shut down is inadequate. It's not the first time Mr Johnson has been criticised for trying to impose new measures. Fellow conservative MPs condemned him late last month after the rollout of previous restrictions was bungled.

In Spain, despite more than 10,000 people being infected with COVID-19 most days during the past week, there has also been fierce political acrimony between the national and regional governments over further restrictions. The Spanish government had to declare a state of emergency to enforce new social distancing measures in the capital, Madrid, after local authorities refused to comply with the tougher rules.

Other hotspots such as France, which reported more than 25,000 positive infections on Saturday, and Germany, which has seen a doubling of infections during the past week, while not facing widespread opposition to new restrictions, are hesitant to enforce the same harsh lockdowns that were enforced earlier this year.

The damage tougher measures will inflict on the economy partly explains the cautious approach, but also while infection rates are soaring in some countries, and hospitals are again being put under pressure, there have not yet been the high daily death rates experienced during the first wave. In addition, there is a growing acceptance of widespread "COVID fatigue".

This has brought about a change in approach from the World Health Organisation. It was reported this week that the UN body was moving from giving European nations health advice to contain the virus to offering psychological advice on how to persuade virus-weary people to stay vigilant. “Fatigue is absolutely natural. It’s to be expected where we have these prolonged crises or emergencies,” said the WHO’s European head, Robb Butler.

For Australia, heading into summer, there are lessons to be learnt. There is no doubt that Europe took its foot off the pedal in its effort to keep the virus contained during the holiday season. With the warmer months approaching, Australia is sure to risk the same result. While we have the advantage of largely closed international borders, the ability to keep people vigilant will be tested in coming months, particularly in states that have been relatively COVID-free for some months. For Victoria, COVID fatigue has already set in for many.

With a potential vaccine not expected to be widely available until at least the middle of next year, European nations hit by a second wave and unwilling to enforce another round of strict lockdowns face many months of high daily infection rates. There is no easy way out. As Victoria has learnt, containing a surge in cases takes enormous collective effort over an extended period. The rest of Australia would do well to take heed of Europe, and Victoria, as it heads to the beach.

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