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Michał Wojtyło  24 listopada 2020

After the conference with the Polish Prime Minister. What are the pandemic restrictions in Europe?

Michał Wojtyło  24 listopada 2020
przeczytanie zajmie 8 min
After the conference with the Polish Prime Minister. What are the pandemic restrictions in Europe? Kancelaria Premiera / flickr.com

At Mateusz Morawiecki’s Friday press conference, it was difficult not to get the impression that the prime minister was announcing success, however small. Morawiecki gave examples of other European countries where the restrictions are to be heavier than in Poland: curfew in the Czech Republic, the need to carry a ‘certificate’ in France or the ‘complete shutdown of economies’ in such countries as Great Britain and Italy. The message was clear – things are not that bad in Poland. Is it really so? What are the current restrictions in Europe and how do Polish restrictions look in comparison?

The Czech Republic – the pandemic ‘leader’ of Europe

According to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dated 6 November, the most cases of disease per 100,000 inhabitants among European countries during the last two weeks were recorded in the Czech Republic (1,585.8).

Poland’s southern neighbour was the first country in Europe to introduce a second lockdown very similar to the spring one. Significant tightening of the rules will last at least until 20 November. Quarantine was announced nationwide from 9.00 pm to 4.59 am, with some exceptions (commuting to work, emergencies such as deteriorating health, walking dogs within 500 meters of home). Movement during other hours is permitted for professional purposes, for necessary shopping, childcare and elderly care, for voluntary work, visits to the cemetery and for necessary family visits.

From Monday to Saturday, from 5 am to 8 pm, only selected stores and service premises are open: food, cosmetic, pharmaceutical and pet shops, kiosks, gardening and building materials stores, as well as laundries, mechanics, florists and electronic equipment services.  Restaurants and bars are closed, and catering is available from 6 am to 8 pm. Gas stations, pharmacies and stores at stations and airports can operate on Sundays and without restrictions to opening time. In public places, up to two people can meet, or more if they are members of the same household. There is also a ban on drinking alcohol in public. Schools and universities operate remotely, while kindergartens remain open.

Harsh restrictions in the United Kingdom

Great Britain is among the European leaders in terms of harsh restrictions. And this is despite the fact that in the last two weeks it has recorded 469.2 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants, which is over three times less than in the Czech Republic.

In the United Kingdom, it was announced that the pool of restrictions would be extended from 5 November to at least 2 December. It is possible to leave one’s place of residence to perform work and school duties, help with the care of the elderly, sick or children, or make necessary purchases. In stationary stores, the sale of „unnecessary” goods, including clothes, home and electronic equipment, is prohibited. Pubs and restaurants are closed, with takeaway services available until 10 pm. Hotels, sports and cultural facilities are also unavailable to the public, and the activities of hairdressing and beauty salons have been suspended.

In the context of social contacts, the term ‘support bubble’ was introduced. Adults living alone or only with children may connect to a nearby household and be treated as one coherent group restrictions-wise – host each other and spend time together without restrictions (one cannot change the composition of one’s „support bubble” during the lockdown).

There is a general ban on social and family gatherings, even in one’s private home, except for outdoor meetings with a maximum of one person outside one’s support bubble. Schools remain open, and universities teach in a hybrid system. There is a limit of up to 30 people per funeral, weddings (except deathbed marriages) are forbidden, and temples can only be entered for individual prayer.

German realism

Previous Wednesday there was a completely different speech in terms of mood given by the leader of a country much more efficient and richer than Poland, which is also considered to have the best indicators of fighting the pandemic in Europe. Chancellor Angela Merkel frankly stated that the situation was difficult and that it was necessary to mobilise the whole society so that Christmas and the New Year could be celebrated with relative peace of mind. She also announced that German citizens must prepare for the so-called soft lockdown until March at least (sic!). In Germany, a total of 259.9 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people have been recorded in the last two weeks.

Following negotiations with the heads of government of the federal states, the chancellor announced that the restrictions would be extended throughout the country from 2 November to at least December.

Within the framework of the restrictions in force, it is possible to leave home if it is for: professional work, necessary shopping, medical visits or helping those in need, e.g. caring for the elderly or children and individual physical exercise. In Germany, e.g. restaurants and bars (apart from takeaway services), hairdressers and beauty salons, cultural facilities (including cinemas, theatres) and public recreation centres (swimming pools, gyms, saunas) are closed. Social gatherings are also forbidden in private homes. Gatherings in public places cannot exceed 10 people in total, assuming that people from a maximum of two households meet. Beyond Poland’s western border, it is strongly recommended to work remotely, whenever possible, and schools and kindergartens remain open. Wearing masks is compulsory in public transport and in stores, where there may be one customer per 10 m2 of floor space. Due to constitutional doubts, protests and religious practices have not been banned. Nursing homes continue to receive visitors.

French chaos?

On the same day as Germany, France announced its lockdown – with the deadline for entry into force on Friday 30 October and the prospect of remaining in force until 1 December. In France, a total of 898.8 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people have been recorded in the last two weeks.

In France, citizens can leave home to commute to work, school (including university), the doctor, or to do essential shopping; to pick up a parcel, help the elderly, the sick and the children, as well as to exercise for one hour a day and to walk the dogs within 1 km of home. The French must have a signed form with them when leaving home, in which they mark the destination and the time of leaving their home (an electronic version is also available for smartphones).

Restaurants, bars and non-essential services are closed. In high schools and universities, most classes are held online, libraries can be accessed by appointment only, and remote work is mandatory across the country wherever possible. Although masses are banned, religious venues may be open for weddings (maximum 6 people) and funerals (up to 30 participants). Masks should be worn in public transport and in closed rooms. Travel between regions within France is also banned. Nursing homes can receive guests.

Along with the tightening of nationwide restrictions, the previously introduced local night quarantines (from 9.00 pm to 6.00 am), which covered the largest metropolises, including Paris and Marseille, have been lifted. The lack of a clear message regarding the abolition of the curfew and the definition of ‘essential’ goods available for sale resulted in information chaos and a plague of fines. From 30 October to 3 November, this chaos and the emergence of social gatherings in public places resulted in the issuance of 14,000 fines. The opinion began to spread that in view of this situation, night quarantine should be restored in major cities.

Fear of a „hard” lockdown in southern Europe

Despite similar experiences with the first wave of the coronavirus, Spain and Italy took different decisions in the context of the current restrictions. The government in the Apennine Peninsula, in particular, is trying to avoid a hard lockdown.

In Italy, by decree of the minister of health, restrictions on the activity and mobility of the public throughout the country were introduced at least until 24 November. In the Apennine Peninsula, 595 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people have been recorded in the last two weeks. Streets, squares and parks are closed to the public after 9 pm. Strong recommendations were made to not leave one’s immediate area except for work, education and health reasons. Restaurants and bars are open from 5 am to 6 pm (take-out available until midnight), and a maximum of four people can sit at one table. Hairdressers and beauty salons also remain open. Cultural facilities, swimming pools, gyms and ski facilities are closed. Outdoor exercise is allowed. Universities and secondary schools largely work remotely. Masks should be worn everywhere except in private homes. Assemblies after church ceremonies: weddings, baptisms and funerals are prohibited. Apart from national restrictions, individual regions may tighten them depending on the number of infections.

Spain was the second country to feel the consequences of the coronavirus particularly hard this spring. As many as 596.6 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people have been recorded in the last two weeks. A week ago, the government in Madrid introduced a country-wide quarantine (excluding the Canary Islands) from 11 pm to 6 am. Travel is only allowed for work, to buy medicines or food. Public and private gatherings have been limited to 6 people, and masks must be worn on public transport and in closed facilities.

Pozostałe obostrzenia są regulowane na poziomie regionalnym. For example, masks are also required outside in many regions, and regional authorities may decide to close their borders. Central authorities have not yet given the regions powers to introduce the stay-at-home order, which was used in the spring. Moreover, the central government is currently processing a bill that extends the state of national emergency until 9 May 2021 and gives regions the power to impose local lockdowns.

And Sweden?

What about the situation in a country that has been presented in recent months as an alternative model of approaching the pandemic? The Swedish government continues to refuse to introduce hard regulations but instead relies on recommendations which Swedish citizens are observing in a disciplined manner.

These recommendations include avoiding public transport, non-essential shopping in stationary stores and malls, or visiting the gym. Furthermore, the government recommends remote work, and there are also limits on people sitting at one table in a restaurant.

Importantly, the number of cases has been growing recently – in the last two weeks, this percentage is 317.1 per 100 thousand inhabitants, which is more than, for example, in Germany. Consequently, stricter recommendations were introduced in 7 out of 21 regions of the country, but covering as much as 70% of the Swedish population.

Polish restrictions among the lightest in Europe?

This European review of restrictions shows the wide range of regulations being introduced today in the face of the progressing pandemic. It is difficult to identify one model or one logic behind the variety of actions taken. When looking for a common denominator or the most frequently occurring restrictions, the following can be indicated: recommendation of remote work and online learning in higher education, wearing masks on public transport and in enclosed spaces, allowing only necessary purchases (although defined differently), closing restaurants, bars and cultural facilities, as well as a ban on mass gatherings.

How does Poland fare against other European countries? Do citizens in other countries have it much worse, as Prime Minister Morawiecki tried to convince the public during the Friday conference? On the whole – they don’t. In the last two weeks, we have recorded 663.6 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants (more than in Italy, Spain and Great Britain). Primary schools remain open in most European countries; the obligation to cover one’s mouth and nose in public spaces among the countries described applies only to Italy and some regions of other countries; European countries generally choose not to close shopping malls as Poland did or to prohibit movement of children and adolescents up to 16 years of age without an adult guardian.

Of course, with all the variety of restrictions introduced, Poland will also find areas where its restrictions remain less strict than in other European countries, such as the lack of quarantine at night or the system of forms used in France.

At the end of April, Paweł Musiałek wrote about the need to conduct effective information policy so that the restrictions have a chance to bring the intended effect. Unfortunately, there is still much room for improvement in this respect for the Polish government. Especially since the crisis is not likely to end soon. The announcements by Angela Merkel and the Spanish government on possible restrictions until next March and May, respectively, show that we still have a long battle ahead of us. In this situation, humility is essential – not only among society as a whole but also among those in charge.

Polish version is available here.

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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.