By Guy Faulconbridge and Richard Lough
LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) – A wave of COVID lockdowns and curbs has stirred resistance across Europe, with the right-wing British politician who helped force a referendum on Brexit harnessing popular anger at a new lockdown by recasting his Brexit Party under a new banner.
The United Kingdom, which has the highest official death toll in Europe from COVID-19, is grappling with more than 20,000 new coronavirus cases a day and scientists have warned the “worst-case” scenario of 80,000 dead could be exceeded.
Cast by his supporters as the godfather of the movement to quit the European Union, Brexit Party founder Nigel Farage said Johnson had terrified Britons into submission with a second lockdown.
“The single most pressing issue is the government’s woeful response to coronavirus,” Farage and Brexit Party chairman Richard Tice said in a joint article in the Daily Telegraph, announcing his Reform UK party.
“Ministers have lost touch with a nation divided between the terrified and the furious. The debate over how to respond to COVID is becoming even more toxic than that over Brexit.”
Instead of a lockdown, Farage proposed targeting those most at risk and said people should not be criminalized for trying to live normal lives such as meeting family for Christmas.
France, Germany, Italy, Britain, the Netherlands and other countries have announced second lockdowns or strict new curbs as infections surge.
Small shopkeepers in France have complained about being forced to close while supermarkets are allowed to sell “non-essential goods” such as shoes, clothes, beauty products and flowers because they also sell food.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Monday French supermarkets would face the same limits on selling non-essential goods but shop owners were not allowed to challenge the lockdown, in place until at least Dec. 1.
“I am not optimistic that in just four weeks we will lower the number of new cases to the level announced by the president (5,000 new cases per day),” said epidemiologist Dominique Castigliola, director of research at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research.
“We will need more time. I don’t think we’ll be able to hold big family meals at Christmas. That seems very unlikely to me.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week denounced populists who say the coronavirus is harmless as dangerous and irresponsible.
“Throughout the winter months, we will have to limit private contacts,” she told a news conference. “The light at the end of the tunnel is still quite a long way off.”
Police in the Spanish capital, Madrid, on Sunday raided 81 illegal parties, 18 drinking sessions known in Spain as “botellones,” and 10 bars which broke COVID-19 curbs.
Protests flared against new restrictions across Italy last week, with violence reported in Milan and Turin. Italy will tighten restrictions but is holding back from a lockdown, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Monday.
Italy’s daily tally of infections has increased 10-fold over the last month.
“It is a monumental debacle. The fact that Italy is in the same situation as other countries in Europe is no comfort to me,” virologist Andrea Crisanti told Reuters. “We had five months to strengthen our surveillance, tracking and prevention systems and instead we are heading towards a new lockdown.”
More than 46.37 million people have been infected globally and 1,198,168 have died from the respiratory disease, according to a Reuters tally. The United States, which holds a presidential election on Tuesday, leads the world with more than 9 million cases and 230,700 deaths.
Iran, the Middle East country worst hit by COVID-19, reported a record 440 deaths in the past 24 hours.
World shares recovered from one-month lows as strengthening factory data in China and Europe offset news of lockdowns, while investors prepared for more volatility arising from the U.S. presidential election.
U.S. President Donald Trump has continually downplayed the virus, mocking Democratic challenger Joe Biden for wearing a mask and social distancing at campaign rallies, a tactic which enlivens his base supporters but infuriates his opponents.
Trump has also ridiculed his top coronavirus task force adviser, Anthony Fauci, who has contradicted Trump’s assertions that the U.S. fight against the virus is “rounding the turn”.
The United States reported 67,862 new cases on Sunday, the highest number it has reported on the last day of any week. The seven-day average hit 81,540, a new record, and has risen for 30 days in a row.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux worldwide; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Giles Elgood/Mark Heinrich)