ROME - European governments are readying plans for coping with a possible coronavirus pandemic, despite the fact that the numbers of COVID-19 cases are still small in Europe compared to Asia.
Officials in several counties admit that they expect the novel virus, which has infected at least 80,000 people worldwide and killed nearly 3000, to spread and say they are developing plans to cancel sporting events and concerts, reduce public transport services, impose travel restrictions and shutter schools.
European Union leaders are still hopeful that member states will refrain from imposing border controls within the Schengen area of visa-free travel, but they acknowledge that the scale of the public health crisis will most likely determine the reaction of national governments.
Some public health experts say the time is right to start planning for a pandemic - they suspect there are far more cases in Europe than are known.
Britain's health service is planning to increase testing for COVID-19 and has directed more than one hundred family surgeries and a dozen hospitals to start more testing, even for people who have not traveled to high-risk countries and aren't displaying any symptoms of the illness. The service says the testing is a bid to establish whether coronavirus is spreading in Britain despite containment efforts. There have been 13 reported cases of COVID-19 in Britain so far.
Health officials said that it would "not be wholly unexpected" if the tests found new cases. Britain's Sun newspaper reported Wednesday that the British government fears 80% of the country's population could contract the virus, if a pandemic does develop. The newspaper quoted from a government report called "COVID-19 Reasonable Worst Case Scenario."
"The current planning assumption is that 2-3% of symptomatic cases will result in a fatality," government officials said in the report. According to the government forecasters infection rates would snowball for two to three months once the virus starts spreading.
A British government spokesman told the newspaper all eventualities had to be planned for, but added, "this does not mean we expect it to happen."
With Italy emerging as a new hub for the virus, many neighboring countries say they have little option but to plan for an outbreak, if prevention and containment fails to halt contagion. Health ministers from France, Germany, Italy and the EU Commission committed to keeping frontiers open at a meeting Tuesday as new cases of the virus emerged throughout Europe.
"We're talking about a virus that doesn't respect borders," said Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza. Britain's health minister Matt Hancock said the British government had no plans to halt flights from Italy, which attracts about three million British visitors each year. "If you look at Italy, they stopped all flights from China and they're now the worst-affected country in Europe," he said.
But whether member states remain united on the border issue remains to be seen. In early February several member governments pressed for restricting entry into the Schengen zone for all travelers from China, but with some countries opposed the move failed on the grounds that such a restriction would make no sense unless all countries acted in harmony.
Some EU officials say that if individual countries start imposing restrictions within their own countries on movement, then it would probably be only a matter of time before some European governments start unilaterally to impose temporary controls on their borders with other EU member states.
European countries are also making preparations for a severe outbreak of coronavirus within their own borders without regard for what their neighbors are planning. Contingency plans, in some countries include quarantining families when any family member contracts the disease. Switzerland, Austria, Croatia and mainland Spain all recorded their first cases midweek, with most infections stemming from travel to Italy, where nearly a dozen towns in the north of the country have been locked down and isolated to try to prevent a further spread.
The World Health Organization has been urging countries to "think the virus is going to show up tomorrow," warning: "If you don't think that way, you're not going to be ready." The outbreak in Italy, where there are more than 300 cases and eleven people have died, has acted as a wake-up call for neighboring states.
France and Croatia have ordered the cancellation of study-abroad programs and are changing train schedules and installing checkpoints. Budapest's airport is installing thermal cameras in a bid to identify passengers displaying elevated temperatures.
Italy's northern region of Lombardy, which includes the city of Milan, the country's commercial capital, has reported the vast majority of the more than 300 coronavirus cases confirmed so far by Italian authorities.
Businesses and public health experts are moving in some cases faster than governments in urging employees and individuals to consider their travel needs. Nathalie MacDermott, an infectious disease expert at King's College London, said that anyone planning to travel to Italy or other affected countries should ask: "Am I prepared that, if I go there, when I return, I might have to self-isolate for 14 days? Is my employer or my child's school aware of that and will that be acceptable to them?"
European companies - like their American counterparts - are also drawing up contingency plans for their employees to telework. In Asia the move to teleworking has already started. In Japan last week, the country's health ministry urged businesses to promote telework and stagger working hours as part of an effort to prevent further spread of the new virus. "We need the understanding of companies to keep the virus from spreading," health minister Katsunobu Kato said at a press conference. His call came after some major companies and telecommunications operators had already started to instruct employees to work from home.