Covid-19 third wave: Which countries in Europe have the tightest restrictions?

Many countries across Europe are ramping up restrictions to try to stem a new wave of Covid-19 infections that has once again left hospitals struggling to cope. But different countries are using different strategies to tackle the virus surge and some countries are even easing measures.

Covid-19 third wave: Which countries in Europe have the tightest restrictions?
Many European countries have extended and toughened restrictions in a bid to halt coronavirus transmission and prevent virus variants believed to be more contagious from propagating in the country. Tobias Schwarz / AFP

Due to the spring surge in the pandemic, propelled mainly by the spread of new more contagious and more deadly variants, European countries have been forced to impose new measures or delay the easing of restrictions.

While there are similar aspects to some European government’s strategies there are also big differences. Here’s an overview of the restrictions and state of play across most western European countries.

Germany – New lockdown for ‘a new pandemic’

After a marathon 13 hours of talks between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and 16 state leaders, the country decided to reinforce its strictest shutdown since the start of the pandemic a year ago.

“Essentially, we have a new virus…it is much deadlier, much more infectious and infectious for much longer,” Merkel said.

As well as extending existing measures including keeping cultural, leisure and sporting facilities shut through to April 18th, Merkel and Germany’s 16 state premiers agreed a tougher shutdown over Easter.

During the Easter holidays between April 1st and 5th, all private gatherings are capped at two households of up to five people, plus children under 14 and supermarkets will remain closed, only opening their doors on Easter Saturday. 

In general bars and restaurants will remain closed until April 18th, and schools and non-essential shops will close in areas with a 7-day incidence rate of more than 100 new infections per 100,000 people.

Originally the much-anticipated federal-state meeting was planned to discuss further loosening Germany’s lockdown measures, which have been in effect – and continually extended – since the beginning of November. In the first week of March, hair salons, flower shops and home appliance stores reopened for the first time since December, and many breathed a sigh of relief in the hopes that other relaxations would soon be on the way.

Yet over the past couple of weeks, Germany has seen a surge in new cases, largely due to virus variants. The nationwide 7-day incidence jumped to 108.1 cases per 100,000 residents on Tuesday, up from about 60 just two weeks prior. 

France – Curfew and a new ‘lockdown light’

France’s national 7-day incidence rate stands 307.8, but this hides big regional variations between areas like Finistère in western Brittany where case numbers are very low – giving an incidence rate of 76.8 – and the Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis which has a worrying rate of 683 cases per 100,000 people.

Because of this France, which has run a national strategy for the majority of the past year, has decided to impose regional restrictions, putting 16 of the country’s 96 mainland départements on what is being termed “lockdown light”. Other hard-hit départements will likely follow in the coming days or weeks.
Life for the residents of these areas, which includes the whole of the greater Paris region, is a lot less restricted than it was during previous lockdowns, but non-essential shops are closed, travel to another region is forbidden and people are urged only to meet up outdoors. Schools, however, remain open.
Across the whole of France a 7pm-6am curfew remains in place and bars, cafés, theatres, restaurants, cinemas and tourist sites are closed. Face masks are still obligatory in public places indoors and outside in most of the main towns, cities and frequented areas.
The government hopes that the regionalised “lockdown light” will be enough to relieve the pressure on hospitals in the worst hit areas while the much-maligned French vaccine rollout belatedly gathers speed. 
Sweden – ‘The key is for people to follow the rules’
Sweden, where the incidence rate is 604 per 100,000 ( this is measured over the last 14 days – click here for the comparison rates between EU countries) has mostly relied on fewer of the strict, legal measures seen elsewhere, but that has partially changed over recent months.

Some of the measures introduced since December include reducing the maximum number of people allowed at public events to eight; ordering all restaurants, cafes and bars to close no later than 8.30pm; and introducing caps on customer numbers at shops, gyms and sports facilities to a maximum of one per ten square metres of usable space. All of these are regulated by law, and businesses or event organisers found violating them can face fines.
Restaurants, bars, and non-essential businesses are still open however, and the number of people you may meet privately is not regulated beyond recommendations to limit socialising to “a smaller circle”. Domestic travel may still go ahead if carried out in “an infection-safe way” authorities have said, meaning keeping a distance from others on the journey and at the destination and planning how to get home if you fall ill. 
Masks were for a long time not recommended for use by the public in Sweden but currently they are recommended on public transport during rush hour. Several regions have gone further and urged residents to wear them at all times on public transport as well as in other indoor environments where crowding could occur, but reports show uptake has been low.
Sweden’s prime minister has issued stern warnings to the population, saying “more people need to do more” but authorities have so far chosen not to introduce further measures, saying the key thing is for people to follow those currently in place.
Italy – Country divided into orange and red zones
The whole of Italy has been under tightened restrictions since Monday, with roughly half the country a medium-risk “orange zone” and the rest a high-risk “red zone”. 
It’s the second time in two weeks that Italy has toughened the rules, after Prime Minister Mario Draghi sounded the alarm over a “new wave” of coronavirus infections two weeks ago. 
Italy’s national seven-day incidence rate to March 18th was 264 new cases per 100,000 people. Any of the country’s regions with a local incidence rate of more than 250 cases per 100,000 residents automatically go into lockdown. 
The new rules means travel is heavily restricted: in orange zones, people aren’t allowed to leave their own towns without an urgent reason, while in red zones you’re supposed to stay in your own home except for essentials.
All bars and restaurants are closed except for takeaway or delivery, as are museums, galleries, cinemas, theatres and other cultural sites. 
Schools are mostly open in orange zones, but are running fully remote learning in red zones.
The government says the restrictions will last until at least Easter, when the whole of Italy will enter lockdown over the holiday weekend. Beyond that, we’ll have to wait and see what the numbers say.
Norway – New national restrictions in place for Easter
Covid-19 infections are increasing in Norway with the 14-day incidence rate per 100,000 standing at 175.
In Norway there are restrictions at both local and national level. Oslo and Viken county, for example, were recently placed under stricter measures than the rest of the country. “We have never before seen such a high level of recorded cases,” said the capital’s executive mayor Raymond Johansen.
The country announced on Tuesday new national restrictions which will be in place over the upcoming Easter holidays.

A limit of two guests at private homes and a national ban on businesses serving alcohol are among new measures to be put in place by the government.

They also include a ban on organised indoor sports and leisure activities for adults, while the one-metre social distancing guideline has been increased to two metres.
Under the new restrictions, all persons returning to Norway after non essential foreign travel must isolate in quarantine hotel for 10 days and may not leave quarantine early on testing negative for Covid-19.
The Easter holidays in Norway normally see many people travel across the country on skiing trips, to visit family or friends or to stay at their country homes and cabins. But the government has now asked all non-essential travel to be avoided. Students traveling to family residences and households traveling together to stay at cabins are permitted.
Austria – Lockdown extended until after Easter

Austria on Monday decided to extend its coronavirus lockdown until after Easter, scrapping a plan to loosen certain measures from March 27th. 

The seven-day incidence rate is 240.4 per 100,000 people.

The number is now highest in the states of Vienna (321.9) and Salzburg (300.3). The value is lowest in Vorarlberg (66.7), Carinthia (187.1) and Styria (187.3).

Currently, strict measures apply to all of the country other than the western state of Vorarlberg, including a nighttime stay-at-home order, along with the closure of bars, restaurants and leisure facilities. 

EXPLAINED: What are Austria’s current coronavirus lockdown rules?

In Austria, hairdressers and cosmetic services may open, however people are required to show a negative Covid test which is less than 48 hours old.

Schools are open for face-to-face classes in Austria, however they can be closed in regions or municipalities experiencing a surge in infections or mutations of the virus. 

In the state of Vorarlberg things are more relaxed – pubs and restaurants are allowed to open indoors and outdoors, while events with up to 100 people have been allowed take place since March 15th

The nationwide measures are set to apply until after Easter, upon which a regional approach will be adopted. 

Switzerland – Lockdown measures extended instead of eased
Switzerland on Friday decided to extend the majority of the country’s lockdown measures in order to fight the “third wave” of the coronavirus. 

Swiss authorities had promised several measures would be relaxed from Monday, March 22nd, including opening restaurant terraces, allowing indoor sports and approving small crowds for cultural and sporting events. 

However, Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset called for the country to be patient amid rising infection rates, saying the existing rules would remain in place until at last April 14th
The government did however decide to relax one measure on Friday, the limit on the amount of people who can meet indoors has been raised to ten, up from the previous limit of five. 
In addition to a mask requirement in all indoor public spaces, Switzerland’s current measures include the closure of restaurants, bars, and cafés, except for takeout and food delivery services. Swiss workers are also obliged to work from home wherever this is possible. Schools in Switzerland have remained open since the summer, despite calls for their closure during a spike in infections in autumn. 
Switzerland currently has a seven-day average incidence rate of 115.8 per 100,000 residents, with the number of new cases per week increasing gradually since mid-February.
Elsewhere the Netherlands is also still in the middle of an extended lockdown which has forced the closure of bars, restaurants, non-essential stores and gyms. The measures were set to be extended on Tuesday. Belgium was also recently forced to pause its plan to ease restrictions due to a new rise in cases.
But restrictions are not tightening in all countries across Europe. In some measures are being eased, albeit with great care.
Denmark – Plan announced to ease restrictions

Unlike a lot of other countries in Europe, Denmark is in a phase of easing restrictions and has just announced a plan to lift many of the rules currently in place over the next two months.

The country’s current incidence rate according to the ECDC is 161.07 cases per 100,000 residents. The number of people hospitalised with the virus is under 200 nationally and has been stable for several weeks, as have daily infection numbers. Just under 11 percent of the population has received a first vaccine dose. 

Schools are currently partially open, the first part of society to see closures reversed following a lockdown implemented in December. Shops have also reopened this month, with the exception of large stores, which operate on an appointment basis, and malls and department stores.

Cinemas, theatres, bars and restaurants remain closed and the public assembly limit is currently 10 people outdoors or 50 for organised sports activities. 

The reopening plan, announced on Monday night, sets out the gradual lifting of most restrictions at two-weekly intervals, providing infections stay under control and vaccines are delivered as expected. The use of vaccine passports forms part of that plan.

The government says it plans for the majority of restrictions to be lifted once all people over 50 have been vaccinated against the virus. The current vaccination programme will see this point reached by the end of May.

Spain – Restrictions easing and tourists ‘welcome’ to return

In Spain, where Covid restrictions are mainly decided on a regional basis, there has been a general easing of the rules across the country in recent weeks as a result of falling infection rates overall. 

Lighter measures include allowing travel between municipalities/provinces and better opening hours and capacity limits for shops, bars and restaurants. 

However, people in Spain will have to spend Easter at home or close by as all regional borders will remain closed for the holiday period in a bid to prevent a spike in cases as occurred after the Christmas period. 

On the other hand, international tourists (mostly from the EU) will be allowed to visit Spain over Holy Week as long as they provide a negative Covid test and fill in a health form beforehand. They will also have to follow the restrictions in place in the part of Spain where they stay.

This arrangement is a matter of much debate in Spain currently, with some critics arguing Spaniards are being granted fewer rights than foreign visitors, and that opening up to mass tourism now could result in the fourth wave and consequently a tightening of restrictions that could be disastrous for Spain’s all-important summer season. 

Spain’s 14-day infection rate currently stands at 128 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. 

Elsewhere in Europe…

Elsewhere in Europe, England is currently at the beginning of a four-step plan to ease lockdown.

Schools are open and if all goes to plan pubs will open their outdoor areas next month. The plan could see all legal limits on social contact lifted by June 21st, if strict conditions are met. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also have their own plans to ease restrictions. 

After a strict post-Christmas lockdown enforced to ease pressure on overrun hospitals, Portugal has also now begun easing restrictions. By the beginning of May it plans to open all bars and restaurants even for indoor dining.

Ireland is also set to ease its lockdown in April after reopening schools in March.

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EXPLAINED: Spain’s new rules for unvaccinated non-EU tourists

Unvaccinated third-country nationals such as Americans and Britons are now allowed to go on holiday to Spain. Here are the requirements, documentation needed and other important information they should know before booking their flights to Spain. 

EXPLAINED: Spain's new rules for unvaccinated non-EU tourists

What’s the latest?

Spain has opened up to unvaccinated non-EU/Schengen tourists for the first time in more than two years.

Previously it was not possible for third-country nationals to visit Spain for non-essential reasons such as a holiday, seeing family or spending time in a second home in Spain unless they were fully vaccinated against Covid-19 (plus booster after 9 months) or recovered from the illness in the past six months. 

From May 21st 2022, unvaccinated tourists and other visitors from outside of the EU can travel to Spain if they show proof of a negative Covid-19 test, the Spanish government confirmed on Saturday. These are the same rules that apply to EU nationals and residents.

Spain’s testing requirements for non-EU/Schengen tourists apply to those aged 12 and older, children under that age are exempt from having to prove testing, vaccination or recovery.

What kind of Covid test do I need to get done to travel to Spain?

In scientific terms, Spain wants a diagnostic test that’s either a NAAT (nucleic acid amplification test, such as an RT-PCR, RT-LAMP, TMA) or a RAT (rapid antigen test).

In layman’s terms, that’s either a PCR test, which must be carried out in the 72 hours prior to departure to Spain, or an antigen test, 24 hours prior to departure.

Covid tests accepted are those authorised by the European Commission and must have been performed by healthcare professionals, therefore self-tests are not valid. 

What do I need to show to travel to Spain if I’m unvaccinated?

You need to show an official certificate or supporting document which shows the negative result of your Covid test. Your country may have a system in place that allows you to upload your negative result to an app. 

The document must be the original, in Spanish, English, French or German, and may be shown in paper or electronic format. If you can’t get it in these languages, it must be accompanied by a translation into Spanish by an official body.

The document that accredits the diagnostic test has to include the date the sample was taken, identification and contact details of the centre performing the analysis, technique used and negative result.

Spanish authorities recognise the UK’s NHS Covid Pass and others that fulfil the above criteria. 

Do I need to fill out a health control form?

This depends. Currently, 40 non-EU countries (and territories) have joined the EU Digital COVID Certificate system, based on EU equivalence decisions. 

That means that people from these nations who have a vaccination, testing or recovery certificate issued by the competent authorities of their country do not need to fill in Spain’s Travel Health form.

The countries with EU Digital Covid Certificate equivalence are Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Benin, Cabo Verde, Colombia, El Salvador, Faroe Islands, Georgia, Indonesia, Israel, Iceland, Jordan, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Malaysia, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Panama, San Marino, Serbia, Seychelles, Singapore, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia, Togo, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the Crown Dependencies (Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man), Uruguay, The Vatican and Vietnam.You can also double-check here in case more countries are added.

If your non-EU country isn’t on the list then you have to fill in the SPTH form and upload your test certificate, which gives you a QR Code you’ll be asked for at the airport. 

READ MORE: A step-by-step guide on how to fill out Spain’s Health Control Form

Do I have to wear a mask on the plane?

Yes, you will most likely be required to wear a mask on the planes to and from Spain, although you don’t have to wear one inside Spanish airports anymore.

READ MORE: What are Spain’s mask rules for travel?

Is there any other travel rule I need to know about?

If you’re not an EU citizen or resident, then you should check if you require a Schengen visa to travel to Spain, as this will depend on your nationality.

Keep in mind that you will also have to abide by other Schengen rules, such as not being able to spend more than 90 out of 180 days in Spain and other Schengen countries.

Does Spain still have domestic Covid-19 rules?

Spain has lifted the vast majority of its Covid-19 rules, so there are no longer curfews, forced closures, limits on the number of people per shop or restaurant or Covid pass requirements to gain entry to buildings. 

Masks are no longer required outdoors and there is no face covering mandate for the majority of indoor public settings, except for on public transport, in hospitals, pharmacies, other health clinics and care homes.

READ MORE: What happens when tourists get Covid-19 while on holiday in Spain?