While cases have been on the rise in countries including France and Britain for several weeks, most of these were among younger people, who are less likely to be hospitalised or die as a result of Covid-19. The increase in cases among more vulnerable older groups is a concern, experts said.
Incidence of Covid-19 among those aged 65 and over has been creeping up in Europe since the beginning of September, with new weekly cases doubling last month compared to the low in July. Meanwhile new cases among those aged between 25 and 49 remained relatively constant in September.
Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the Telegraph: “We are heading back to March again if we are not careful, that’s the real worry.”
There are some positives: testing has improved dramatically across Europe, which explains why far more cases are being found now than in March and April. For example, at the peak in April, around 30,000 new cases were found, on average, per day in Europe; in the last week, it was more like just over 70,000.
Hospitalisations also remain far lower than in the spring. At the start of this week, around 20,000 Europeans were in hospital with Covid-19. That compares to the peak in April, when at their worst Europe’s wards were occupied by over 90,000 people, with over two thirds of them in France and Italy.
However, as more vulnerable groups are becoming affected, hospitalisations and deaths will rise, scientists said. In Spain at the end of July, there were four times more cases among young people aged 15-29 than among the over-70s, but now it is only twice as many.
Fernando Simón, the Spanish health ministry’s Covid team leader, said: “The rise in cases among the elderly obviously means more hospitalisations and a greater risk of saturating the system even more than we have seen up to now.” He urged younger people to “make every effort to control transmission, especially among vulnerable groups”.
In Portugal too, cases among the over-80s shot up by 30 per cent over the past week, with 5,500 new cases detected in the week to Wednesday. The share of the elderly testing positive for Covid-19 is still far below the peaks of April, however.
Back then around 31 per cent of those with positive results were over 65, compared to roughly 10 per cent now – though this may just be a reflection of the ramping up of testing outside hospitals across Europe.
Germany is seeing a sharp jump in new coronavirus infections, raising fears the pandemic is picking up pace in a country that so far has coped better than many of its European neighbors.
On Thursday the country’s disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute, reported 4,058 new infections and 16 deaths over the past 24 hours, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 310,144 since the start of the outbreak, with 9,578 deaths.
The head of the institute, Lothar Wieler, warned that the daily number of new cases could rise above 10,000, as they have in several other European countries.
“We don’t know how the situation in Germany will develop in the coming weeks. It’s possible that we will reach more than 10,000 cases a day. It’s possible that the virus will spread uncontrollably. But I hope it doesn’t,” he said.
Dr Julian Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester, said the rebound was inevitable as countries opened up after lockdowns.
“The spread of any pandemic virus is driven by a lack of immunity in the population – and very few of the populations across Europe were infected due to the earlier lockdowns,” he said.
“So, ironically, now that those formerly locked down populations are exposed again, the virus will spread through these populations – across all age groups that are still susceptible, unfortunately.”
France is the continent’s worst hit country, with 79,000 cases reported in the last week. In total, it has seen 654,000 cases, and more than 32,000 deaths. The UK appears to be tracking France in terms of cases and hospitalisations, with around a two-week lag.
Both countries have seen the rate of new hospitalisations nearly double in two weeks, with around six people per 100,000 being admitted to hospital for Covid-19 in France and four people per 100,000 in the UK.