An ambulance worker assists an ill man in Madrid, Spain, March 31 2020. Picture: DENIS DOYLE/GETTY IMAGES
An ambulance worker assists an ill man in Madrid, Spain, March 31 2020. Picture: DENIS DOYLE/GETTY IMAGES

Madrid — Spain suffered its deadliest day of the coronavirus pandemic, as European governments doubled down on efforts to maintain rigid lockdowns amid tentative signs that the infection rate is slowing.

Italy and the Netherlands are discussing prolonging measures to limit personal contact, and German officials warned that it’s too soon to ease restrictions as things could still get worse.

Alongside the battle for public health, wider implications of the crisis are starting to emerge. Concerns are growing about European unity as the financial cost of the shutdown risks deepening divisions between member nations.

In a letter to eurozone finance ministers, Eurogroup president Mario Centeno warned that the bloc will emerge from the crisis with much higher debt levels, and government policy must take care to prevent this from fragmenting the currency union.

Total Spanish virus deaths rose by 849 to 8,189 in the past 24 hours, according to the latest Health Ministry data. The number of new cases increased by 9,222 — the most in a single day — to bring total confirmed infections in the country to 94,417.

The Spanish government is betting that severe restrictions on public life at least through the Easter weekend will help curtail the spread of the disease, which has killed more people in Spain than in China where the pandemic started.

On Europe’s eastern fringe, Romania is suffering a surge in fatalities after tens of thousands of its citizens returned from Italy and Spain, making it the worst-hit nation in central and Eastern Europe. The death toll surged to 69 in the past 24 hours, with more than 2,100 people infected. That’s almost the combined number of deaths in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

The grim figures come after the World Health Organisation called on governments to maintain containment measures, saying Europe’s curbs on movement are starting to have an effect.

Mike Ryan, head of health emergencies at the WHO, said Monday that “our fervent hope” is that Italy and Spain — the epicentres of the pandemic in Europe — are approaching a peak. He urged countries to step up efforts to find and isolate patients.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government may extend restrictions through the May 1 holiday weekend, with a gradual opening of the country from May 4, local media reported.

New infections in Italy, which has the most cases after the US, totalled 4,050, compared with 5,217 the previous day, civil protection authorities said late Monday. This was the lowest increase since March 17. Fatalities from the disease rose by 812 compared with 756 on Sunday, bringing the total to 11,591.

Even as Italy reported the smallest number of new coronavirus cases in almost two weeks, the country will extend current containment measures until at least Easter, Health Minister Roberto Speranza confirmed on Monday.

Conte is also trying to stave off the risk of social unrest and his administration is preparing an emergency handout for workers trapped in Italy’s underground economy.

The prime minister is expected to host a cabinet meeting on Wednesday or Thursday to approve a new request to parliament for a wider budget deficit, paving the way for a second stimulus package worth at least €30bn, according to officials who asked not to be named discussing administration strategy. Italy’s initial package was worth €25bn.

Austria faces economic costs of 0.53% of annual output for every week of full lockdown measures, according to the country’s central bank. In a “moderate” scenario — some measures will be relaxed as soon as mid-April and gradually expire by the end of May — the crisis will lead to a contraction of 3.2% in 2020.

In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government is expected to extend measures including school and restaurant closures beyond April 6, according to local media. On Monday, the rate of new confirmed cases rose by 8% to 11,750, the lowest daily increase since the first case was reported at the end of February.

The premier of the southern German state of Bavaria said earlier Tuesday it’s too early to consider easing containment measures as the situation remains “very, very serious”.

“We are detecting a very, very slight flattening of this exponential curve, the infection numbers are declining somewhat,” Markus Soeder, whose state has the most confirmed cases in the country, told ARD TV. “But whether that’s a lasting trend remains to be seen.”

The impact on Europe’s largest economy is becoming more evident. German companies filed almost half a million applications for financial aid under a government support program in March, the Federal Labour Agency said.

The head of Germany’s public health authority said he expects the pandemic to continue for several more months and the nation’s death rate — a relatively low 0.8% — to rise. Carmakers Volkswagen and Daimler and sports-apparel maker Puma  are among those planning to idle tens of thousands of staff.