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Back to life: How Europe is unlocking the coronavirus lockdown

Many countries on the continent are easing restrictions brought in during the Covid-19 pandemic, but setbacks seem inevitable on the road to normality, says John Meagher


Signs of life: Customers queue in front of an Ikea store in Heerlen as the company reopens its Dutch outlets

Signs of life: Customers queue in front of an Ikea store in Heerlen as the company reopens its Dutch outlets

ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Fionnuala Zinnecker with son Darragh

Fionnuala Zinnecker with son Darragh

Laura McAtackney

Laura McAtackney

Musician Wallis Bird

Musician Wallis Bird

Signs of life: Customers queue in front of an Ikea store in Heerlen as the company reopens its Dutch outlets

The queues began outside the Ikea store at Taastrup, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, on Monday morning. Within a couple of hours, the line was more than 100 metres long.

It was a similar scene at Denmark's four other Ikea outlets and it was a sight that continued throughout the week as Danes sought a fragment of normality.

The country's business minister, Simon Kollerup, expressed his frustration that the flat-pack furniture retailer had opened its doors. The Danish policy was to allow smaller shops to reopen the previous week on the basis that they could manage social distancing better.

Ikea announced that, because it had voluntarily closed six weeks before, it had a right to reopen and insisted it would ensure that customers would be kept apart.

Denmark was among the first European countries to impose a lockdown. On March 11, with 500 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and no deaths, prime minister Mette Frederiksen announced that schools were to close, retailing was to cease, and people were to stay indoors as much as possible and rigorously adhere to social distancing.

It was also among the first countries to partially easy the restrictions. On April 15, primary schools reopened, but under strict conditions: class sizes cannot number more than 10 and hourly handwashing is mandatory.

On April 20, a number of services were allowed to reopen, including hairdressers. There was a virtual stampede for appointments, with the country's main booking website crashing. Crown Prince Frederik was among the first to post a selfie revealing a professional haircut.

For people here, the prospect of being able to get unkempt hair seen to, or to be able to go shopping for children's clothes, is tantalising yet out of reach.

Laura McAtackney has lived in Denmark for the past five years. A professor of archaeology at the University of Aarhus, she grew up in Belfast.

"The lockdown wasn't as severe here as it is in Ireland," she says. Nothing would have stopped her going from Aarhus to Copenhagen, for instance. All the trains were running as normal.

But the borders were closed. "I had an American student who was able to travel to Copenhagen, but her flight home was cancelled," she adds.

Since many of the shops reopened the week before last, she says that a certain sense of normality has returned, although she has been surprised to see virtually nobody wearing a face mask, "even in places like hairdressers".

"You go into shops and you don't see the sort of social distancing you'd have in Ireland - there are floor markings, but they're definitely not two metres apart," she says.

McAtackney and her South African husband, Jon, have largely kept to themselves since the crisis began.

Despite a considerable easing of restrictions across the country over the past fortnight or so, they are still carefully following social distancing.

She has been able to do things that are not yet available to people here, such as a face-to-face physiotherapy appointment rather than a virtual consultation.

"I was a bit uneasy about it," she says, "but the physio said it would be fine, maybe because he had had six weeks of not being able to work."

The prospect of queueing up for Ikea is not one that McAtackney is envisaging any time soon.

"People can't forget that, just because the restrictions are eased, [it doesn't mean] it's plain sailing from now on," she says. "The infection rate can rise again."

That is what has happened in Germany. Several of the country's federal states started to ease restrictions in the third week of April, but there has been a noticeable rise in the number of infections since.

Just before the easing came into effect, Germany's basic Covid-19 reproduction figure - the so-called "R0" - was 0.7. In other words, every 10 people with Covid-19 were infecting seven others. This week, the number nearly hit R1, with every person infecting one other, before stabilising at 0.9.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned there is every chance that restrictions will have to return. It is a reminder to those who forget that the roadmap out of lockdown is paved with difficulty.

For Fionnuala Zinnecker, who lives with her German husband, Ulli, and three sons in the Rhineland-Palatinate state, close to the border with France, the easing of restrictions has meant the reopening of some retailers.

"Even during the restrictions, big DIY stores - the equivalents of Woodie's - were allowed to stay open and their car parks didn't look all that different to before any of this began," she says.

"Other stores had to close and there seemed to be quite a bit of confusion as to why that was. But many of the shops that were closed have reopened."

Most significant for Zinnecker will be the partial reopening of schools from Monday. The focus, she says, is on pupils who are in significant school years, including one of her sons, who is in the final year of primary school.

Zinnecker, from Co Meath, will also be going back to her office job in telecommunications.

"The numbers of people in offices will be lower," she says, "and there are plans for people to wear face masks when they are out and about and at work.

"I think people in Germany have taken the crisis seriously, although there have been protests in Berlin about the restrictions."

Wallis Bird, the Wexford musician, has lived in Berlin for five years. An Irish tour for March was postponed until September once the restrictions came into force. "I've never seen Berlin like this," she says. "The air is so clear because there's far less traffic on the roads. People are cycling, there's been quite a bit of freedom to move around the city."

Restrictions have eased gradually in the German capital. "You see small, independent shops being able to open again. Things like hair salons," she says. "There isn't so much of a consumerist society here in Germany, so you wouldn't have people rushing to get to shops like you might have elsewhere."

Bird uses a mask when outdoors now. It is something she has done from even before the pandemic.

"I saw people wearing them in Japan when I was on tour there and it feels like a sensible idea when you're in a big city. And, right now, people here have been very responsible. You see a lot wearing masks and they're being very careful about social distancing, too."

Anybody who wishes to use public transport in Germany has to wear a mask.

A sign of how radically different the approaches to the crisis have been throughout the continent can be gleaned from the attitude to masks. In Austria and the Czech Republic, mask-wearing has been compulsory since restrictions began and remains so even as both countries return to a semblance of normality.

In Portugal, where some shops will reopen next week, mask-wearing is advised, although the country's leaders have yet to decide if wearing them will be a requirement. In Scandinavian countries such as Norway - where schools resumed last week - mask-wearing is not required.

Masks will be a key part of Belgium's three-phase plan to ease restrictions - train stations will start selling them from Monday. Starting next week, several shops will be allowed to open and offices will be able to resume with reduced capacity.

Later in the summer, restaurants will be permitted to begin service again, but only if social distancing can be observed. Cafes and bars will have to wait before they can reopen their doors.

Prime minister Sophie Wilmes has said that the plans are dependent on rates of infections not rising to unsustainable levels, and warned that restrictions will be reimposed if targets are not met.

For Niall Curley, who works for the European Landowners' Organisation in Brussels, the eased restrictions can't come soon enough.

"It's been tough," the 24-year-old says. "There was a lot of fear at the beginning and I have to admit that I did a small amount of the bulk-buying at the beginning.

"I found the isolation to be extremely difficult and after about four days of not leaving the house, I started an argument with my best friend on WhatsApp. Mentally, it's very tough.

"It feels a lot laxer than it was in the beginning and when I go for a walk in the park at weekends, you'd have thousands of people there. I think there was a lot of discomfort at the beginning about trying to stay apart, but you don't sense that as much now. There's definitely a sense out there that people want some sort of normality."

This week, a semblance of normality returned to Spain when children were allowed outdoors for the first time in a month.

The lockdown had been particularly tough there, with penalties imposed on people who were discovered outside their homes without a valid purpose.

The situation has been just as onerous in Italy, the European country with the highest number of reported deaths from Covid-19 - 27,682 by Thursday of this week.

Prime minster Giuseppe Conte has preached a 'slowly, slowly' easing of restrictions, a decision that has caused considerable disquiet in a country that imposed restrictions on movement earlier than anywhere else in Europe.

Italy will start to gradually ease its two-month lockdown on Monday. The new rules will allow construction and manufacturing to resume. Retailers and museums will reopen on May 18 and bars and restaurants in June. Schools will remain shut until September.

Meanwhile, Denmark is planning to allow a new batch of openings. From May 11, assuming infection rates do not rise, restaurants, sports centres and second-level schools will open again.

Some opposition politicians believe the process is happening too slowly, but Frederiksen is not for turning.

"The government is not going to be pressured into moving too fast," she said. "You can open too slowly and too fast and we must find the golden middle ground."

Belfast Telegraph