Across Europe, governments and businesses are maneuvering to try to stop a surge in coronavirus cases — driven by the rapid spread of the Delta variant — from hampering the continent’s recovery.
For the past few months, the relaxation of pandemic restrictions and the growing ranks of the vaccinated have propelled the economy forward. The European Commission recently upgraded its forecasts for the region. Britain has recorded four straight months of economic growth and in some regions of the country, the number of employees on payroll is higher than before the pandemic.
But now the Delta variant has made the path of the recovery much more unpredictable and uneven.
In Britain, the final lifting of restrictions on Monday is expected to add fresh momentum to the economic recovery. But the surge in infections presents an unexpected new hurdle to businesses trying to operate at full capacity. Businesses including hospitality, theater and trucking are having to temporarily shut as staff go into self-isolation because they have either caught the virus or have been told they have come into contact with someone who has.
The surge in the number of people self-isolating has been a curveball even for businesses that prospered during the past 16 months. Fowlds Cafe, on a residential street in South East London, needed to close only five days during the first lockdown while the owner quickly transformed it into a coffee shop and general store with no seating. Business has been strong.
But after carefully navigating the pandemic restrictions for over a year, Fowlds recently had to shut for three days because a member of staff was in contact with someone who had the virus — so the rest of the team also needed to self-isolate and wait for coronavirus test results. Such closures are becoming more frequent.
“I do think it’s going to be very disruptive,” said Jack Wilkinson, the owner of Fowlds. He’s trying to mitigate the impact by looking for more part-time staff to reduce the chances of the whole team needing to isolate at once. But he said he was unlikely to reintroduce seating in the cafe until next spring, to help keep staff and customers safe.
In other European countries, rising case numbers have collided with the return to normal life, and restrictions have been reimposed. In Spain, which once again has one of the highest infection rates in Europe, some regional governments have reintroduced restrictions. The virus is mainly spreading among the younger, unvaccinated population, creating fears of a new pullback in international travel and canceled bookings.
Portugal has reintroduced a curfew in Lisbon, Porto and other popular tourism spots, dampening a second summer travel season. When the European Commission published its latest economic forecasts last week, Portugal was one of only two countries for which the growth prediction wasn’t upgraded because coronavirus restrictions in June had slowed the pace of recovery there.
“Spain and other Mediterranean countries, they really have a big problem,” said Guntram Wolff, director of Bruegel, a Brussels-based economic think tank. “This health situation affects a critical sector massively,” he said.
This week, France and the Netherlands also announced new measures. In France, the government is trying to avoid another shutdown by introducing a “health pass,” showing whether users are vaccinated or recently tested negative, to get into restaurants and aboard planes and trains. The country has pursued a “whatever it takes” policy to support workers on paid furlough and to help businesses avoid bankruptcy. Of nearly 300,000 jobs destroyed last year, around 187,000 new ones have been created.
The German economy has been bouncing back quickly. Masks are still mandatory inside stores, but restaurants are open and full. The unemployment rate, at 5.9 percent, is almost back to the pre-crisis level.
But Germany’s recovery has also been bumpy and the number of new cases has doubled in the last week and three-quarters of those were attributed to the variant.
So far there is no talk of renewed lockdowns, but quarantine rules for travelers returning from Portugal and some other countries will discourage tourism. That is bad news for the rest of Europe: Germans are among the continent’s most avid travelers.