Cancelled events and falling markets as Europe confronts Covid-19

Peter Beaumont
Photograph: Claudio Furlan/AP

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, warned on Thursday that France was on the brink of a coronavirus epidemic, as countries across Europe rushed to confront the escalating numbers of cases.

With new evidence of unexplained cases of transmission emerging in Spain, Germany and France, the mounting public health crisis on the continent forced the cancellation of public events from Geneva to Greece, including sporting events, carnivals and trade conventions amid further sharp stock market falls and disruption to European travel.

“We are facing a crisis, an epidemic that is coming. We know that certain countries are already much more affected than us,” Macron said while visiting staff at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, where the first French victim of the virus, a 60-year old teacher, died on Tuesday night.

“We know that we’re only at the beginning. We’re going to try to make the right decisions,” Macron added.

On Thursday evening French authorities said the number of confirmed cases in the country had more than doubled in 24 hours to 38. The health minister, Olivier Veran, said this was due to the identification of so-called “contact persons” linked to previously known cases.

Macron’s comments came as the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned that the world was at “a decisive point” in a crisis that has now hit 47 countries, adding that epidemics in Iran, Italy and South Korea “demonstrate what this virus is capable of”.

French President Emmanuel Macron visits the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. Photograph: Martin Bureau/EPA

Tedros said the number of new cases in China had been outstripped by new cases outside the country for a second day running. “It’s what’s happening in the rest of the world that’s now our greatest concern,” he cautioned.

Almost 3,000 people worldwide have died of Covid-19 so far, and some 82,000 have been infected, mainly in China.

Complicating the issue in several countries is the emergence of cases without any apparent link to China, Italy or other centres of the outbreak.

With new confirmed cases being identified in the last 24 hours from Northern Ireland and Derbyshire in the UK, to Spain, Italy and Germany – many with links to the initial European outbreak in northern Italy – countries were scrambling to introduce measures to contain the spread of the disease.

Among them was Greece, where the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said his country would tighten its border controls including around a key migrant route, amid fears the infection could enter overcrowded refugee camps, which have already been described as a “ticking health bomb”.

Russia also announced that it would suspend the train service from Moscow to the southern French city of Nice from 4 March as part of wider measures. The train runs through Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy and Monaco.

Moscow also announced it would suspend some flights to and from Iran from Friday, except those operated by its national carrier Aeroflot and Iranian airline Mahan Air. It announced this week it would suspend some flights to and from South Korea and would also stop issuing visas to Iranian citizens for regular and transit travel from 28 February.

As cases of the disease appeared in nine new countries - Brazil, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Norway, Northern Macedonia, Pakistan and Romania - other nations also introduced new measures to attempt to control the outbreak. They included:

  • Japan, which has announced it will close schools nationwide for several weeks from Monday.

  • Iran, a major outbreak centre with a death toll of 26 out of 245 cases, where authorities announced domestic travel restrictions for people with confirmed or suspected cases of the coronavirus and restrictions on Friday prayers.

  • Saudi Arabia, which has temporarily suspended visas for visits to Islam’s holiest sites for the umrah pilgrimage, an unprecedented move triggered by coronavirus fears.

  • South Korea, the largest outbreak centre outside of China with 1,766 cases, where planned joint military exercises with the US have been postponed.

  • Israel, which has denied entry to dozens of foreign nationals who landed on flights from Italy on Thursday.

For its part Italy’s government, desperate to stave off a likely recession over the devastating impact to tourism and its northern industrial heartland, on Thursday changed the way it counted its coronavirus cases to distinguish between people who had tested positive for the virus and patients showing symptoms of Covid-19, in an apparent effort to ameliorate the impact.

But even as ministers took to the airwaves with reassuring messages, officials said the death toll had risen to 17, while the number of people confirmed to have contracted the illness rose to 650.

The latest developments emerged as Spanish officials said that none of the 700-plus guests at a hotel in lockdown in Spain’s Canary Islands, including some 100 British tourists, have shown any symptoms of the virus and 130 of them have been cleared to leave the building.