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Europe prepares for bleak winter as coronavirus rages across nations

Several European countries have warned that it is too early to plan for Christmas travel as coronavirus cases continue to rise across the continent. Countries from West to Eastern Europe prepare for a winter without the usual holiday cheer.

By Stefan J. Bos

With Christmas and other celebrations approaching, much of Europe still faces lockdowns and other measures amid the raging coronavirus pandemic. 

In Sweden, people have been told to prepare for possible travel restrictions during the holiday period.

And Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar made clear that people in his Catholic nation might have to celebrate Christmas without loved ones living abroad. "I think in terms of people booking flights to come home for Christmas, I'd advise them not to do that at the moment," he told legislators. 

"I know that's difficult . . . tough, but Christmas is six weeks away, and it's too soon to be booking flights to come home," he added. "We're not in a position at this point to advise people that it's safe to come home for Christmas." 

ENGLAND DISEASE RECALLED

Varadkar cited the 1967 outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease in England, where Irish people were asked not to come home. "They didn't come into Ireland, and I'm not saying it's the same, but certainly, we're not in the position at this point to advise people that it's safe to come home for Christmas."

He added: "I know that's a tough message to hear, but that's the case for the short term. International travel is a risk. I think we need to be upfront and honest about that."

French authorities also said it was too soon to tell if people could make travel arrangements. France is among several nations with tough lockdowns. 

In Italy, for instance, much of the country is in lockdown, and there are calls for stricter measures after authorities reported 636 coronavirus deaths on Thursday. 

Among others is Portugal, which has significantly expanded the number of places subject to a night curfew. From Monday, three-quarters of the country will be under the government's toughest restrictions.

HUNGARY'S ARMY INVOLVED  

It's even more challenging here in Hungary. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has asked the army to help impose an 8 pm to 5 am curfew. 

While Hungary closed its borders to most foreigners in early September, bars and restaurants remained open, and 16,000 people attended a Budapest soccer match in late October. 

But other central or eastern European countries imposed restrictions like those now in effect in Hungary weeks earlier. And this month, neighboring Slovakia administered 3 million tests in a single weekend, while Hungary's daily number of tests hovered around 18,000.

Prime Minister Orbán, who faces an election in 2022, says he hopes restrictions such as on family gatherings, which are limited to ten people, can be lifted by Christmas. 

But he warns that the effects of the coronavirus measures introduced on Wednesday will only be visible in two weeks. 

13 November 2020, 16:07