A technician seals a sample at the drive-in testing centre in Junglinster, 18 March 2020
Photo: Matic Zorman
A second wave of the covid-19 infections seems probable. But, as the crippling economic impact of lockdown measures starts to emerge, a second lockdown seems unlikely.
Nato is preparing for it, and EU coronavirus chief Dr Andrea Ammon this week warned it is likely inevitable that the easing of lockdown will be followed by a second wave of coronavirus infections.
At a press conference on Wednesday, finance minister Pierre Gramegna (DP), and deputy prime ministers François Bausch (déi gréng) and Dan Kersch (LSAP) acknowledged a second wave of infections was probable. In light of the huge costs to the economy of the first lockdown (the government has earmarked 5% of GDP for recovery funds), “the goal must be to avoid another lockdown”, said Bausch. The government has formed a working group to outline a plan. Gramegna added: “We’ve everything in place to master this second wave without locking down the country.”
Gramegna said it was not a matter of blind optimism, yet with studies into the disease still at an early stage, there remain several unknowns. While there is as yet no vaccine, non-pharmaceutical counter measures are all we have for reducing the spread of coronavirus. NPMs, as they’re known, refer to social distancing, wearing of face coverings and stringent hygiene (hand-washing and cleaning of contact points).
Gramegna was optimistic this would continue to be effective. In his eyes, people in Luxembourg respected the rules in the first wave. “If we all remain responsible with the additional measures in place, this second wave should be manageable," he said.
What did lockdown achieve?
The closure of schools, non-essential shops and introduction of teleworking as part of lockdown from 16 March had a huge impact on managing the curve of the virus' growth.
Luxembourg government figures show that hospital admissions peaked at 20 per day, just two weeks after lockdown began. At the same time, the retransmission rate fell to below 1, a sign that the number of cases was shrinking.
But, the lockdown is being eased in Luxembourg and a new phase is due to start on 25 May with the reopening of primary schools.
A cyclist is swabbed at the drive-in testing station in Junglinster, 18 March 2020. Photo: Matic Zorman.
Testing will go a long way in mitigating any unwanted effects of this phased reopening. A voluntary, fast-track testing scheme is currently being rolled out to all residents and cross-border workers in Luxembourg, offering the possibility to test up to 20,000 people per day. Further details are expected imminently.
The ambitious project should give a clearer picture of the asymptomatic carriers of the virus, who spread it silently and unwittingly. Through manual contact tracing and self-isolation, people who test positive will be able to inform other people they have had contact with, thus empowering them to take action and quarantine.
Can the Luxembourg health system handle a second wave?
During the first wave, Luxembourg created four advanced care centres, to serve as a point of first detection and triage for all patients with health concerns. On Wednesday, health minister Paulette Lenert (LSAP) said advance medical centres in Grevenmacher and Ettelbruck will close on 29 May. The centre at the Rockhal in Esch will remain open until 15 June and the one at Luxexpo, in Luxembourg-Kirchberg, will also close but will remain fully equipped so that it could be reopened in the event of a second wave. Luxembourg bought four scanners capable of offering a speedy diagnosis of suspected covid-19 patients. And it also constructed a military field hospital at the CHL complex in Belair, with the help of Nato, in case of need. As the number of critical cases declines, hospitals wind up their dedicated covid-19 departments. For instance, the CHL this week closed its covid-19 ICU. For now.
The resources and knowhow are there. But, no-one wants to push staff and services to breaking point and as Gramegna said, the public has a responsibility to avoid this from happening.
What did Luxembourg learn from the first wave?
The first wave reminded people in Luxembourg of how fragile the health care sector is in Europe--as countries like Italy and Spain hit breaking point. It was also a wake up call to how much the country relies on cross-border workers--who make up 70% of this sector’s workforce.
It showed a strong public willingness to help, as thousands of people volunteered for temporary posts to assist in the response, made masks or helped through small acts of kindness such as doing the shopping for an elderly neighbour.
The presence of air freight firm Cargolux has also been beneficial to the country in terms of bringing much-needed medical supplies.
A big lesson, however, has been the realization that Luxembourg can do nothing if its neighbours decide unilaterally to partially close borders. Checks on the Luxembourg border with Germany were only eased a week ago. These led to delays in crossing over for workers and deliveries.
So much for the Schengen agreement. During the first wave, border controls were introduced on the German border with Luxembourg, 17 March 2020. Photo: Matic Zorman.
How likely is a second wave?
Likely enough that at the beginning of May May, Nato drew up a military operation plan to respond to lack of preparedness the first time in relation to support flights or air transport of patients, as Politico reported.
Early findings suggest that between 2% and 14% of populations contracted the disease during the first wave and developed some kind of immunity, leaving a large proportion still vulnerable.
On Thursday European Center for Disease Prevention and Control director Dr Andrea Ammon told The Guardian newspaper it was not a question of if, but of when and on what scale a new wave of the disease would strike. She said that if people stick to the rules, a disastrous situation could be avoided but voiced concerns that public willingness to continue social distancing was waning.
As Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel (DP) said on Wednesday: “We cannot say today that we have won the fight against the virus. It would be wrong to think that there are absolutely no problems.”