Grimmest Day of Pandemic Has Europe Groping for Answers

Italy reported its highest daily death toll yet from the coronavirus, as signs the contagion is accelerating across Europe prompted governments to weigh tougher measures to fight the spread.

The 627 fatalities announced in Italy brought its total to 4,032 on Friday, a day after the nation surpassed China as the country with the most deaths. Italy remains the hotspot of the epidemic in Europe, even as cases multiply at an alarming rate in Spain, France, Britain and Germany.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government is set to reinforce the near-total lockdown in the country, possibly by extending the current ban on non-essential activities until at least early May, according to officials who asked not to be named discussing confidential deliberations.

In Spain, the coronavirus claimed 235 lives over the past 24 hours, Health Ministry official Fernando Simon said Friday. That raised the total death toll by 31% to 1,002, almost a week into a nationwide lockdown. The government has indicated that the restrictions, scheduled to last for two weeks, may be extended as cases rise.

Johnson Measures

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who’s been criticized for his slow response to the pandemic, announced that pubs, restaurants and cafes will be ordered to shut. Schools across the U.K. closed starting Friday.

British citizens may need to keep away from each other for most of a year in order to contain the spiraling outbreak, U.K. government advisers concluded. They suggested the government could alternate between periods of more and less strict measures of so-called “social distancing” — in which individuals work from home and avoid gatherings, according to documents detailing scientific advice ministers have received.

In Germany, a senior minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet warned that if people continue to socialize, everyone — apart from those who work in essential services — may be told to stay in their homes unless they are shopping for food. Germany has more than 18,600 confirmed cases and 49 deaths.

Economic Blow

The steps governments are taking to deal with the contagion will bring a heavy economic cost. This year’s recession may be much worse than previously anticipated, perhaps as bad as the one in 2009, at the depths of the financial crisis, the European Union’s executive arm said Friday.

The European Commission proposed a suspension of the bloc’s draconian fiscal rules to cushion the fallout from the outbreak.

With business and social life on hold in several countries, governments are already laying out plans to borrow and spend freely to mitigate the damage to businesses and employees.

Germany will pass a supplementary budget for this year of at least 100 billion euros ($107 billion), according to people familiar with the plan. The surge of additional spending will be financed entirely by new debt, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity as the plan isn’t public.

Discarding Rulebook

Merkel’s cabinet will sign off on Monday and it will go to parliament for approval on Wednesday, the people said. The exact amount of extra cash is still in flux and discussions will continue over the weekend, they added.

The government is also planning to create a separate rescue fund for companies worth around 500 billion euros, the people said. The finance ministry could not immediately be reached for comment.

Merkel’s ruling coalition is abandoning a long-standing commitment to balanced budgets and tearing up rules restricting borrowing enshrined in the constitution.

The King’s Speech

The U.K. announced an unprecedented stimulus plan on Friday. Under the proposals, businesses will get a 30 billion-pound ($35 billion) tax holiday, with the government deferring value-added tax payments for a quarter. Workers whose jobs are at risk will see up to 80% of their wages paid by the government at an unknown cost.

2020 will be a year that each of us will remember for the rest of our lives because of the coronavirus, Dutch King Willem-Alexander said in a speech Friday, the fourth time the country’s monarch spoke to the nation in a televised address since World War II.

“The measures to contain and slow the spreading of the virus are necessary and drastic,” the King said, calling upon the Dutch to look after each other, especially the elderly and lonely.

The Netherlands reported 2994 cases of infection on Friday, and 106 coronavirus deaths since the outbreak began.

— With assistance by Nikos Chrysoloras, Alex Morales, John Follain, Rodrigo Orihuela, Fred Pals, and Alessandro Speciale

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