By Daniel Boffey , the Guardian’s Brussels bureau chief
Exclusive: ‘The question is how big,’ says Dr Andrea Ammon, who thinks March skiing breaks were pivotal to spread
The prospect of a second wave of coronavirus infection across Europe is no longer a distant theory, according to the director of the EU agency responsible for advising governments – including the UK – on disease control.
“The question is when and how big, that is the question in my view,” said Dr Andrea Ammon, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
It has been the unenviable task of scientists to tell it as it is through the coronavirus pandemic. While politicians have been caught offering empty reassurances, the epidemiologists, a job title new to many, have emerged as the straight shooters of the crisis, sometimes to their detriment.
And Ammon, a former adviser to the German government, speaks frankly in her first interview with a UK newspaper since the crisis began.
“Looking at the characteristics of the virus, looking at what now emerges from the different countries in terms of population immunity – which isn’t all that exciting, between 2% and 14%, that leaves still 85% to 90% of the population susceptible – the virus is around us, circulating much more than January and February … I don’t want to draw a doomsday picture but I think we have to be realistic. That it’s not the time now to completely relax.”
Earlier this month the former hospital doctor, who worked through the various levels of healthcare bureaucracy to be become ECDC director in 2017, announced that, as of 2 May, Europe as a whole had passed the peak of infections. Only Poland was technically not yet there, she said.
European governments have started easing their lockdown restrictions, some to the extent that bars and restaurants will soon reopen, others rather more tentatively. Boris Johnson has tweaked his message to Britons from “stay at home” to “stay alert” and is seeking to send pupils back into schools in a fortnight.
Ammon’s job is to scrutinise the fallout and catch any rise in infections early. Talking through Skype from her kitchen at home, from where she has been working remotely for the last two months, she insists a disastrous second wave is not inevitable if people stick to the rules and keep their distance.
But she detects an ominous weakening of the public’s resolve.
“I think now it’s beginning to strain. What we see is that, on the one hand, the economic part for small and medium-sized businesses but also the experience of people not being able to exercise all the freedoms that we normally have: to go where we like, to be with whom we want to be. And this is a quite fundamental change to our normal way of life.
“And especially now when it is clear [infections] are going down, people think it is over. Which it isn’t, which it definitely isn’t.”
Asked whether the data was showing any repercussions, Ammon gave a deadpan answer. “Not yet. I mean, maybe it doesn’t come ever, maybe all the adjustment of these measures is done in a prudent way. This is something we are really right now are closely monitoring: what is happening after all these measures.”
As of Wednesday 158,134 people have died from Covid-19 in the EU and the UK, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland, according to ECDC data for the countries the agency monitors.
The UK has the highest level of deaths in Europe, with 35,341, followed by Italy (32,169) and France (28,022).
A total of 1,324,183 cases of infection have been reported. Among those is a member of Ammon’s own staff. Only a skeleton group of fewer than 10 now work in the agency’s office in Stockholm.
“Part of our crisis team that needs to be there because they need very close cooperation. But they’re sitting wide apart. Honestly. We have to do what we preach.”
Ammon recalls that it was only in late January that it had become clear that a novel virus causing a cluster of deaths in the Chinese city of Wuhan could be transmitted human to human, with initial concerns focusing on the possibility of the disease spreading through imports.
As the extremely contagious nature of the virus emerged, the ECDC advised governments on 26 January to strengthen the capacities of their health services. There was fear of them being overwhelmed, as was shortly to be the case with tragic results in Lombardy in northern Italy.
“We did really emphasise that these plans have to be updated. And in particular, the hospital preparedness needs to be looked at, how to make sure to have a surge capacity for beds, in general, but also in particular for intensive care unit beds.
“I think what turned out is that [the governments] underestimated, in my view, the speed of how this increase came. Because, I mean, you know, it’s a different situation if you have to look for an increased capacity of beds within two weeks or within two days.”
Ammon believes that when the inevitable inquiries look into the twists and turns of the crisis, the return of holidaymakers from Alpine skiing breaks in the first week of March will be seen as a pivotal moment in the spread of Covid-19 into Europe.
“Because at that time we saw that new cases all over Europe [and] actually [they] had been in the skiing places in the Alps, in Italy, Austria. I mean this is a crowded place, the ski resorts, and then you have these cabins that you go up the mountain and these are really crammed. Yeah, it’s just perfect for such a virus. I mean I am pretty sure that this contributed to the wide spread in Europe.”
Lockdowns followed – a theoretical possibility in the pandemic planning that few believed was feasible. “I remember when China put the lockdown to Wuhan, people told me, ‘Look this wouldn’t be possible in Europe.’ Hmm.”
Now the lockdowns were straining the public’s tolerance, she said, but questioned whether they still came in too late and whether swifter action could have saved more lives. “I believe if we would have put in these measures earlier, it might have been possible, but … these measures are so stark, I mean they are so out of our experience that it, I think it needed … unfortunately the situation in northern Italy to make everybody clear that it is necessary.”
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The Guardian, Thu 21 May 2020, 10.45 BST: