ATHENS, Greece — With a surge in coronavirus cases straining health systems in many European countries, Greece announced a nationwide lockdown Thursday in the hopes of stemming a rising tide of patients before its hospitals come under "unbearable" pressure.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that he acted before infection rates reached the levels seen in many neighboring countries because, after years of financial crises that have damaged its health system, it couldn't afford to wait as long to impose restrictions as others had.
"We must stop this wave," Mitsotakis said. "I chose once again to take drastic measures sooner rather than later."
Before the outbreak, Greece had one of the lowest rates of intensive-care beds per capita in Europe. It has since doubled the number to 1,013. But, of the 348 beds dedicated to coronavirus cases, only 128 remain unoccupied.
It's unlikely that number would've been enough to cope with what Mitsotakis said could be 1,000 new hospital admissions over the next 10 days, of which about 150 would likely have required ICU treatment.
On Wednesday, Greece announced a record 18 daily deaths and 2,646 new cases bringing the total confirmed cases to just under 47,000 and deaths to 673 in this country of nearly 11 million. Greece's rolling average of daily new cases is just over 17 per 100,000 people, as compared to 33 in the United Kingdom, about 47 in Italy and 68 in France. But the prime minister warned Greece also had less margin to respond.
Countries across Europe have imposed tighter restrictions in recent days, but some experts felt those measures were too slow in coming.
Britain's own lockdown kicked in Thursday, shuttering restaurants, hairdressers and clothing stores until at least Dec. 2. The lockdown decision was an about-face for the government, which had earlier advocated a targeted regional response to the pandemic.
Italy, too, has held off on a nationwide closure, but the government announced that four regions will be put under "red-zone" lockdown for at least two weeks starting Friday, with severe limits imposed when people can leave home. Germany and France have also put some kind of shutdown into effect over the past week.
In Greece, Mitsotakis explained that he acted relatively earlier than others because he could not take the risk of waiting to see whether the effects of measures taken recently would work.
"It could be the case that the measures would have worked, but if they didn't, then in 15 days the pressure that would have been exerted on the health system would be unbearable," he said. "That is something that, I will say it again, I can in no way allow."
The lockdown takes effect at daybreak on Saturday across the country and will last until the end of the month. People will only be allowed to leave their homes for work, physical exercise and medical reasons — and only after sending a text message to authorities.
Shops will shut, although supermarkets and other food stores will remain open. Restaurants will operate on a delivery-only basis.
The measures mirror Greece's spring lockdown that was credited with keeping the number of infections, deaths and serious COVID-19-related illnesses low.
The main difference this time around is that that kindergartens, primary schools and all grades in special education schools will remain open. High schools will operate by remote learning. Borders will remain open, but anyone arriving from abroad will have to have proof of a negative coronavirus test, Civil Protection Deputy Minister Nikos Hardalias said.
The lockdown comes just ahead of the crucial Christmas shopping season, and Mitsotakis announced additional measures to buoy the economy.
He said workers suspended from their jobs will receive an 800-euro ($950) stipend — 300 euros more than what the government doled out in the spring. Mitsotakis also announced an extension of unemployment benefits.
Greek Finance Minister Christos Staikouras outlined other measures, with a total cost of 3.3 billion euros ($3.9 billion). They include the extension of payment deadlines for taxes and loans. Staikouras said measures taken to tackle the pandemic so far in Greece amount to more than 6% of gross domestic product.
Greece's lockdown comes as daily infection rates in other European countries kept setting new records.
Germany, which this week enacted a monthlong partial lockdown, recorded nearly 20,000 new coronavirus cases in one day Thursday, its highest level yet.
Poland, Ukraine and the Czech Republic also registered new daily coronavirus infection records on Thursday.
"The situation is quickly changing from difficult to catastrophic. The outbreak is unfolding at the speed of a hurricane," Ukrainian Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, France is considering tightening a monthlong partial lockdown to stop fast-rising virus hospitalizations and deaths. Despite signs that the country's infection rate is starting to dip, it remains very high. More disconcertingly, COVID-19 patients now occupy more than 80% of France's ICU beds, according to the public health agency, a proportion that is still rising quickly.
Paris hospitals are at 92% capacity with 1,050 COVID patients in intensive care and another 600 patients in ICU with other ailments, Paris region health service chief Aurelien Rousseau told public broadcaster France-Info on Thursday.
"There is unprecedented pressure, on hospitals and medics," Rousseau said. "We have reached the alert level, because to manage, every day we have to cancel a bit more activity" like pre-programmed surgeries.