Europe is once again an epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, with governments across the continent ‘well behind’ in the fight against the disease, a senior World Health Organisation medic has warned.

Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, said much more comprehensive measures will be needed if Europe is to get on top of the virus.

Speaking at a press conference, he said: ‘There’s no question that the European region is an epicentre for disease right now. Right now we are well behind this virus in Europe so getting ahead of it is going to take some serious acceleration in what we do and maybe much more comprehensive nature of measures that are going to be needed.’

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Dr Ryan added that if European countries imposed much tougher measures, it should be possible to stay ahead of transmission rates as long as thorough public health surveillance is in place.

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He urged governments not to ‘squander’ the opportunity presented by further lockdowns, and to support their citizens in doing the right thing.

He also warned the free movement of people within the EU was going to present a huge challenge as the transmission rate gathers pace, and might have to be suspended in a bid to get the virus under control.

‘Europe has spent 50 to 70 years trying to break down barriers and break down walls – it’s not an easy thing to build a coherent response across so many countries with so many different approaches, with so many land borders,’ he said.

‘There’s a lot of free movement, on those principles it may require shutting down and restricting movement and having stay-at-home orders in order to take the heat out of this phase of the pandemic.’

Dr Ryan’s remarks come as new restrictions are imposed that mean more than eight million people in England will be living under the toughest anti-Covid measures by the end of the week.

The UK government has pressed on with its strategy of localised lockdowns in England, while neighbouring Wales has gone for a two-week ‘circuit-break’ approach.

France recorded 52,000 cases on Sunday, while Covid-19 patients are present in half of the country’s intensive care units, and filling more than two-thirds of intensive care beds in the Paris region.

The Spanish government declared a new national state of emergency over the weekend, with extra measures including an overnight curfew.

Spain reported almost 20,000 new daily cases and 231 more fatalities on Friday, taking the country’s death toll in the pandemic to 34,752.

In the Belgian city of Liege, 10 hospitals have been forced to take the dire step of asking staff to keep working even if they test positive for coronavirus – as long as they have no symptoms.

Dr Philippe Devos, head of the Belgian Association of Medical Unions, told the BBC they had no choice if they were to prevent the hospital system collapsing within days, with a quarter of medical staff in the city reportedly self-isolating.

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Dr Ryan said the more stringent measures being implemented in many European countries could have been avoided if everyone had done everything in their power to protect themselves from the disease.

He expressed his frustration at conspiracy theorists and anti-lockdown campaigners but said not everyone had the knowledge to accept the scale of the problem.

‘How can you convince someone to do something if they don’t actually believe there is a problem?’ he said.

‘Persuasion is a discussion, persuasion is a dialogue, persuasion involves the exchange of resources between people.

‘Governments need to persuade people to do the right thing but they need to support people in doing that.’

Earlier, WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticised world leaders who have undermined scientists during the pandemic.

He said: ‘Where there has been political division at the national level, where there has been blatant disrespect for science and health professionals, confusion has spread and Covid-19 cases and deaths have mounted.

‘A pandemic is not a political football. Wishful thinking or deliberate diversion will not prevent transmissions or save lives.

‘What will save lives is science, solutions and solidarity.’

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