'People are letting down their guard': COVID cases increase across Europe for first time in 2021

Rebecca Speare-Cole
·3-min read
FILE - In this Monday, March 9, 2020 file photo, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization speaks during a news conference on updates regarding on the novel coronavirus COVID-19, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. After the new coronavirus erupted in China, the World Health Organization sprang into action: It declared an international health emergency, rushed a team to the epicenter in Wuhan and urged other countries to get ready and drum up funding for the response. Many analysts have praised the initial response by the world’s go-to agency on health matters. But now, governments have started to brush aside, ignore and criticize WHO recommendations on issues of public policy, like whether cross-border travel should be restricted or whether the public should wear masks. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP, file)
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, speaks during a news conference. (AP)

Coronavirus cases have increased across Europe for the first time since the start of the year as countries start to ease lockdown measures, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.

The latest research from Our World In Data shows that there has been a recent uptick in cases in Europe in the last week.

At a press conference on Monday, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said an increase in cases can be seen across four of the organisation's six regions – the Americas, Europe, South East Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Austria, Belgium, Portugal, Finland and Italy are some of the European countries to see a surge in new cases in the last few days, according to Our World In Data.

Read: Boris Johnson was grilled over Brazil variant seven weeks before it arrived in UK

Tedros said the increase was "disappointing but not surprising", blaming it on countries relaxing public health measures, the spread of new variants and “people letting their guard down”.

It comes as countries race to vaccinate their population, with the UK’s latest figures showing the rollout may already be helping to bring deaths and hospitalisations down.

Vaccine programmes are bringing nations hope that they can soon start to lift economically crippling lockdown measures.

But Tedros said it was too early for governments to rely totally on vaccination schemes and abandon other measures.

"If countries rely solely on vaccines, they are making a mistake. Basic public health measures remain the foundation of the response," he said.

Watch: Giving up on controlling COVID-19 is 'dangerous' - WHO

Tedros also criticised rich countries for hoarding vaccine doses, saying that it was in everyone's interest for vulnerable people to be protected around the world.

He noted that Ghana and Ivory Coast became the first countries on Monday to begin vaccinating people with doses supplied by COVAX, the international programme to provide vaccines for poor and middle-income countries.

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However, he added: "It's regrettable that some countries continue to prioritise vaccinating younger healthier adults at lower risk of diseases in their own populations, ahead of health workers and older people elsewhere."

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO technical lead for COVID-19, told the briefing: "We need to have a stern warning for all of us: that this virus will rebound if we let it and we cannot let it."

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Mike Ryan, the organisation’s top emergency expert, said the global fight against the coronavirus was in a better state now than it was 10 weeks ago before the roll-outs of vaccines had begun but it was too early to say the virus was coming under control.

"The issue is of us being in control of the virus and the virus being in control of us," he said. "And right now the virus is very much in control."

Watch: World won't vanquish coronavirus this year, says WHO