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COVID-19 News From Europe

The start of the week sees the pandemic blowing hot and cold in Europe, with some countries easing coronavirus restrictions on Monday while others tighten lockdown rules. Schools are open again in England, while more trade is being allowed in Germany as of Monday. But in Finland, Hungary and parts of Italy new restrictions are being put in place. Meanwhile the Netherlands remains on a knife-edge, with the Prime Minister due to announce whether existing measures are extended.

The return of some two million schoolchildren to classes in England comes after a two-month shutdown, and is a crucial step in the British government's plan to ease the country gradually out of its third lockdown.

Thanks to its major vaccination programme which has seen 22 million first doses administered, the government has said it will be possible for six people to meet outside from March 29. Pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops should be able to re-open from April 12.

In Germany, bookshops, florists and driving schools - which have already reopened in some regions - are now able to welcome visitors across the country.

However many people consider the vaccination rollout to be too slow, with only five percent of the population having received their first jabs. At the same time hostility to restrictive measures has been rising. In Greece, discontent led to clashes on Sunday between police and residents of an Athens suburb. Police used tear gas to disperse around 500 people who had gathered late in the day in a local square to protest against an earlier incident. Videos circulated earlier show a police officer violently beating a young man with a baton. Police say they were attacked by around 30 people while they intervened to enforce COVID-19 rules. Public weariness and even anger at restrictions is causing some governments to be extremely cautious as they consider next steps.

A news conference to be given by Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte at 18.00 CET is particularly awaited in the Netherlands which saw riots after a night-time curfew was imposed in February. Rutte is due to announce whether or not to extend the restrictions. When the curfew was brought in, several nights of violence followed in the worst unrest the country had seen for decades.

New restrictions are being imposed from Monday in three regions in Italy, following an announcement by Health minister Roberto Speranza on Friday.

In the north, the Friuli Venezia Giulia and Veneto regions are elevated to orange "moderate risk" status, while in the south the Campania region around Naples moves up to red, denoting "high risk". The measures in red zones include the closure of bars, restaurants, schools and nurseries, and a ban on movement except for work or health reasons.

Last week Italy's health authority said the R number measuring the rate of infections had risen above 1 for the first time in seven weeks, to 1.06. The government's health advisory group warned that Italy had entered a "third wave" of the coronavirus following a sharp rise in infections.

Finland has not hesitated in introducing new restrictions, including the closure of bars and restaurants from Monday. The same measures are being imposed in Hungary, which has been confronted with a resurgence of the epidemic: schools, as well as most shops and businesses, are due to close.

In France, part of the north of the country experienced its first weekend under lockdown, a measure due to last for four weeks in the battle to contain the British variant of the coronavirus which has been particularly virulent in the Pas-de-Calais region.

In stark contrast, Israel is returning to near-normal life after a further easing of restrictions, with nearly 40 percent of the population now vaccinated. As of Sunday people have once again been able to sit on café terraces, while bars and restaurants are open to holders of a "green passport", a permit given to those who have received both vaccine doses or who have recovered from COVID-19.

"This is a great day, we're opening with a green passport restaurants, coming back to life," declared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seated outside at a café in Jerusalem.

Image - Vladimir Lyashkovsky

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