(Bloomberg) -- France reported its deadliest day from the coronavirus amid tentative signs that the pandemic may be easing in Spain and Italy.
The health ministry in Paris reported 588 hospital deaths, the most yet, bringing the figure to 5,091 since the beginning of the outbreak. In contrast, new infections slowed and fatalities declined in Spain for the first time in four days, as infections stabilized in Italy. Together, the three countries account for more than half the deaths worldwide in the pandemic.
Austria could become one of the first in the region to loosen restrictions that have shut down much of public life. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s government will review data and consider a plan in coming days to gradually restart the economy, the Austrian leader told parliament in Vienna on Friday.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions because there are some positive signals,” Kurz said. “I can promise you, if the numbers support it, we’ll do what we can to return to normality step by step.”
Despite the pockets of improvement, governments have little leeway to unwind lockdowns that have devasted the region’s economy. IHS Markit said its monthly measure of services and manufacturing in the euro area points to an annualized contraction of about 10%. With new business, confidence and employment all down, there is “worse inevitably to come in the near future,” it said.
Signs emerged that squabbling national leaders are coalescing around an aid package. Euro-area finance ministers are set to agree on a coronavirus aid package of 500 billion euros ($540 billion) next week, the group’s leader, Portugal’s Mario Centeno told Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
Germany is planning to set up an extra 300 billion-euro aid program to help small- and medium-sized companies, and Switzerland doubled the amount of state credit guarantees for businesses to 40 billion francs ($41 billion).
In another positive development, German Chancellor Angela Merkel left her precautionary quarantine. After ending 12 days in voluntary self-isolation in Berlin, Merkel will continue to observe social-distancing standards, government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters.
The chancellor, who this week prolonged a nationwide lockdown until April 19, addressed the public Friday from the chancellery for the first time since the quarantine, making a plea to stay home and avoid social contact through the Easter holiday.
Even though a slight slowing of the spread of the disease offers “some hope,” she said it was far too early to set a target date for easing restrictions.
Europe’s longest-serving leader took center stage in Germany’s fight against the virus with a rare televised address to the nation on March 18, in which she called the pandemic the country’s gravest challenge since World War II.
Kurz, who wore a face mask before and after his speech, urged Austrians to persevere with measures to limit contact between people and asked them to refrain from celebrating the Easter holiday with large gatherings of families and friends. His government will review virus statistics with epidemiology experts on Sunday and present its plans on Monday.
Growth in new infections in Austria has decreased to less than 5% per day. The number of daily fatalities has fallen for four straight days this week.
Spain’s Health Ministry on Friday reported 932 new deaths and 7,472 cases over the latest 24-hour period, both smaller gains than the previous day. The dip in the daily figures could lead to less pressure on overwhelmed hospitals. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government is looking to extend the current lockdown for another two weeks beyond April 11, Spanish media reported.
Italy reported 4,585 new infections, while there were 766 fatalities compared with 760 in the previous 24-hour period, civil protection authorities said at their daily news conference in Rome.
The pace of both new deaths and new infections has flattened out over past days, even as the containment measures shuttering all non-essential activities and banning most movement take a heavy toll on the economy. In total, the country had 119,827 cases and 14,681 deaths.
In France, daily intensive-care admissions fell for a fourth day, adding to signs that lockdown measures across Europe may be helping to bring the outbreak under control. The total number of fatalities is 6,507, including 1,416 deaths from nursing homes -- data that was partially included for the first time on Thursday.
Despite Merkel returning to work, Germany’s fight against the outbreak suffered a setback. Fatalities and confirmed cases rose by more than the previous day on Friday, with total deaths climbing past 1,000. The mortality rate is probably underestimated because of insufficient testing, according to Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute.
The country -- which has 84,794 infections, the third-most in Europe -- may still need additional intensive-care space, even after boosting capacity by more than 40% since the crisis began, the head of Germany’s public health authority said.
“My personal appraisal is that it will not be enough,” Wieler said at a press briefing. “I would be happy to be wrong.”
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