Many countries around the world are currently planning measures for re-opening their economies in the wake of the first wave of coronavirus, or for that matter taking them. There is little sign of coordination or a common approach to this difficult problem.
Re-opening is not as simple as ending restrictions, either. There are significant risks of another surge of infections. Restoring demand in areas such as personal services or travel will require a high level of trust in public health authorities. Furthermore, opening and closing are not clear terms and policies must be discussed with more precision: some particularly rigorous countries’ “opening” simply approximates less rigorous countries’ lockdown. According to the COVID-19 Health System Response Monitor, countries’ transition strategies differ significantly.
Countries are taking very different approaches to re-open
Governments are identifying and managing these risks in different ways and at different speeds. The first movers, including Austria, Denmark and Germany, are not necessarily setting a clear example for others to follow. With older populations, higher contact rates between the old and young generations and higher overall death tolls, southern countries such as Italy and Spain are perhaps more reluctant to consider an early and fast-tracked easing of lockdown measures.
School re-openings provide a good example of the variability across countries in approach, though there are some commonalities worth noting. Although schools can be a major vector for spreading the disease, some countries are opting to reopen them quickly due to the economic and societal consequences of prolonged school closures. Some schools will reopen, as early as April 20th for daycares in Norway and May 4th for schools in several German Länder to allow parents to go back to work. In many cases, however, schools reopening will be gradual and restricted to certain ages (mostly day care centers and primary schools, such as in Denmark, Norway, Switzerland) or to specific groups, such as essential workers’ children (Belgium and Norway). Most schools will restrict class sizes (France and Romania). In several countries, high school graduates will return to school to take their final exams (Austria and Romania). Attendance will be optional in several countries, including the Netherlands. Most education ministries have indicated that school openings would be reversed if infection numbers were to rise again. In other countries, schools will remain closed until the end of May (Poland) or mid-June (Romania for non-high school graduates) or early September (Italy).
Transitioning is inevitably going to be a two-way street
Some governments and commentators have been referring to re-opening plans as ‘exit strategies’, referring to progressive phases of easing restrictions on individuals and businesses. Calling these plans ‘exit strategies’ is misleading as the term ‘exit strategy’ implies a one-way street. Until treatments and vaccines for coronavirus are in place, strategic planning by states will need to account for both easing and tightening of restrictions. Restrictions currently in place will need to be improved and used again where necessary to save lives.
Most countries that have developed transition strategies point out that they can move back and forth between different stages of coronavirus measures. Metrics are not always clear, though. German states have agreed to an “emergency brake”. If the daily infection rate exceeds 50 diagnoses per 100,000 inhabitants over a seven-day period, the restrictions could be tightened again. Both Spain and France have adopted plans that are intended to be both gradual and asymmetric across geographic regions, accounting for risk levels. These transition strategies can be adapted in accordance with the evolution of the epidemic. Their impact will be periodically assessed. In France, for instance, exit measures will be reviewed every three weeks from May 11th. The Greek transition strategy will be updated every week. Italy and France are using ‘traffic light’ (i.e., red, yellow, and green risk levels) systems to account for different levels of risk -in Italy, among different types of businesses, and in France, between geographic areas. Tight restrictions will remain in “red” regions, including Paris and eastern France, which still present high infections levels. In yellow regions (northern and central France) and green regions (western France), local authorities will be able to ease the confinement based on local infection rates. Travel between France’s regions and outside a 100 km (60 miles) radius from home will be allowed only for professional or urgent family reasons. Other countries such as Belgium, the Czech Republic and Italy have also imposed restrictions on domestic travels.
Holly Jarman, Sarah Rozenblum, Scott L. Greer, Matthias Wismar