E.U. braces for tough winter as citizens protest COVID restrictions

A stark warning from outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the fourth wave of COVID-19 sweeping her country: It's "worse than anything we've seen," she said Monday. Winter is coming across Europe, and with it a spike in infections and a spike in anger at reinstated restrictions to slow the spread. Special correspondent Trent Murray reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A stark warning today from outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the fourth wave of COVID-19 sweeping her country. It's — quote — "worse than anything we have seen," she said.

    Winter is coming across Europe, and with it a spike in infections, alongside a spike in anger at restrictions put back in place again to slow the spread.

    Special correspondent Trent Murray reports.

  • Trent Murray:

    Rolling up the welcome mat today in Salzburg. In the birthplace of Mozart, silence filled the air, as Austria went into its fourth COVID-19 lockdown.

    The virus is surging again on the continent, leading to renewed restrictions, and across Europe this weekend, renewed resistance. In the run-up to lockdown, Austria's main far-right party drew tens of thousands into the capital, Vienna, to denounce the measures Saturday.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I want my freedom back. One would think we live in a democracy now, but this is a coronavirus dictatorship.

  • Trent Murray:

    Sunday was not a day of rest in the Belgian capital, Brussels. Riot police ringed the headquarters of the European Union and used water cannons on protesters, and for a third night straight, violence last night in the Netherlands, a week into a new modified lockdown, amid restrictions on COVID passports to only the vaccinated.

    Prime Minister Mark Rutte bluntly denounced the rioters as — quote — "idiots," all this, as many in Europe try to make this new abnormal livable. It looks like business as usual at the Lur Cha Blanc Restaurant in Central Paris, with lunch service well under way.

    Like many venues across the French capital, the restaurant is seeing a return of regulars after a tumultuous year of taxing lockdowns and forced closures. But between serving diners and polishing silverware, manager Jeremy Tranh's shift comes with a new set of responsibilities, making sure the business doesn't breach COVID-19 control measures.

    That includes using government software to confirm diners are safe to be seated.

  • Jeremy Tranh, General Manager, Lur Cha Blanc Restaurant (through translator):

    During the week, we are losing a bit of time to check everyone in. We need to have it all set up, get the app and check every Q.R. code.

  • Trent Murray:

    Forming part of France's Health Pass app, those Q.R. codes indicate one of three things, whether a person is vaccinated, has previously been infected with COVID-19, or tested negative in the past 24 hours at an official testing site.

    But with almost two thirds of the European Union's population of nearly 450 million now fully vaccinated, those types of rapid tests have become much less common. Testing facilities which once swelled with crowds now largely sit empty, as authorities move away from subsidizing testing costs.

    But as COVID-19 mounts a major resurgence across the E.U., member states are now rethinking that strategy, a reassessment backed by the World Health Organization's Richard Pebody.

  • Dr. Richard Pebody, World Health Organization:

    Europe at the moment is certainly seeing a big upsurge in cases and deaths this autumn. So, we are certainly the epicenter of activity at this point in time.

  • Trent Murray:

    For many regions, the recent resurgence of COVID-19 can be directly linked to lower-than-anticipated vaccination rates.

    And, as cases rise, convincing those who are vaccine-hesitant to comply with new restrictions remains a challenge. In Germany, the government has now backtracked on its decision to remove free rapid tests and returned to a policy of actively encouraging testing in order to help monitor infection levels in the population.

    Health workers say government subsidies can be a big influence on whether people come forward to get tested.

  • Daniel Lorenz, Station Manager, Coronatest Berlin:

    We have had a whole roller coaster of ups and downs. Now, lately, rising back up again. We are fully in the next period of COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Trent Murray:

    The return of free testing has been a politically divisive issue, with criticism directed towards unvaccinated people using the negative result certificates to circumvent vaccine passport requirements at places like bars, restaurants and gyms.

    But German lawmaker Dirk Wiese says now is not the time for that debate, given the crisis unfolding across the country.

  • Dirk Wiese, Member, German Parliament (through translator):

    It had been thought that people might consider getting vaccinated because of the financial burden of regularly paying for tests. It did not happen that way.

  • Trent Murray:

    the back-and-forth over the testing policies comes as governments across Europe brace for a potentially long and difficult winter ahead.

    Already, some hospitals say they're having to cancel elective surgeries because of the pressures on their intensive care units. And in some regions with particularly high case numbers, lawmakers are rolling out new restrictions designed to safeguard the hospital system against the resurgence.

    Germany has now extended its coronavirus state of emergency into early next year, paving the way for fresh rules like the newly announced Vaccine Passport Plus. It's a measure that will require citizens to show both proof of vaccination and a negative test result before being allowed entry to many public spaces.

    But it's a policy criticized by some business and hospitality groups as unworkable, but one many politicians say is needed.

  • Dirk Wiese (through translator):

    if I know I have been double vaccinated and I have a negative test at the same time, then I can go on with my activities with peace of mind.

  • Trent Murray:

    As Europe fast approaches the two-year anniversary of its first COVID-19 restrictions, it's becoming increasingly challenging to persuade people of the dangers still presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Trent Murray in Berlin.

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