Europe's winter lockdowns compared – which country has the least freedom?

Oliver Smith
·10-min read
It could be worse, but not much - Getty
It could be worse, but not much - Getty

We cannot leave our homes except for work, essential shopping and exercise (plus a few other “reasonable excuses”), yet our pitifully few freedoms could soon be reduced even further. The Government is apparently mulling over tighter lockdown restrictions, with nurseries, support bubbles and collective worship thought to be in its crosshairs. So how do our rules compare with other European countries? Has anywhere avoided a winter lockdown altogether? 

France

Lockdown severity: 8/10

Latest seven-day case rate: 195.4 per 100,000

Coronavirus France Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus France Spotlight Chart - Cases default

France’s national lockdown ended on December 15, but restrictions remain swingeing. A curfew is in place from 8pm to 6am across much of the country, with some departments (including Hautes-Alpes, Alpes-Maritimes, Ardennes, Jura, Haute-Saône, le Vaucluse and Vosges) suffering a stricter 6pm to 6am limit. 

Face masks are required in all public spaces, both indoors and outside, while restaurants and cafes are still closed, along with cinemas, theatres, museums and ski lifts (meaning only ski tourers and cross-country enthusiasts can enjoy the mountains). Struggling businesses in the Alps are starting to question if they’ll get any season at all

Travel between regions is allowed, however, and schools and shops are open. 

Spain

Lockdown severity: 6/10

Latest seven-day case rate: 261.1 per 100,000

Coronavirus Spain Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus Spain Spotlight Chart - Cases default

Spain has so far avoided a second national lockdown, despite a rise in cases since the arrival of winter. Restaurants and bars (remember them?) are even allowed to open. 

However, social gatherings are limited to a maximum of six people, there is an overnight curfew (starting from 10pm and midnight, depending on the region, and lasting until 6am), and face masks must be worn just about everywhere (except inside your own home – for now). 

Some regions have imposed tighter rules, however. Andalusia has introduced border restrictions, for example, and ordered bars and restaurants to close by 6pm, Asturias says only four people can be seated at the same table in dining establishments, the Basque Country has banned the sale of alcohol between 9pm and 8am, and Cantabria only permits outdoor dining (pray for patio heaters; it’s 2C today). For a full run-down of the regional restrictions, this article by El Pais is a great resource. 

Italy

Lockdown severity: 7/10

Latest seven-day case rate: 200.2 per 100,000

Coronavirus Italy Spotlight Chart - cases default
Coronavirus Italy Spotlight Chart - cases default

Travel between regions was banned in Italy from December 21 to January 6, putting something of a dampener on festive celebrations. Furthermore, people were not even allowed to leave their hometowns on Christmas Day, Boxing Day or New Year’s Day. 

The travel ban has been lifted but restrictions remain severe: a nightly curfew from 10pm to 5am, mandatory masks in all public spaces, whether outdoors or indoors, the closure of museums, theatres, cinemas and concert venues, as well as sports centres, swimming pools, spas and wellness centres. Shopping centres are also closed on weekends.  

Bars and restaurants are open across most of the country, although just four people can sit together and they must stop serving at 6pm. 

Italy has a tier system, however (yellow, orange and red), so rules are stricter in some regions. The orange tier currently features Calabria, Emilia Romagna, Lombardy, Sicily and Veneto; travel between towns is restricted and bars and restaurants are only allowed to serve takeaway.

Germany

Lockdown severity: 9/10

Latest seven-day case rate: 173.7 per 100,000

Coronavirus Germany Spotlight Chart - cases default
Coronavirus Germany Spotlight Chart - cases default

Britain and Germany are brothers-in-arms when it comes to Covid restrictions, with both currently imposed nationwide lockdowns on their weary citizens. The rules in Germany will last until at least January 31. 

In Covid hotspots, residents are not allowed to travel more than 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) from their home without a valid reason, while day trips are explicitly forbidden. Private gatherings are restricted to one household plus one individual from another household, all non-essential shops are shut – although restaurants can offer takeaways, and schools are also closed. Furthermore, people are not allowed to drink alcohol in public – so no swigging of glühwein on your afternoon walk. Services at churches, mosques and synagogues may continue, but face masks must be worn and singing is banned. 

Despite the tough restrictions, opposition is limited. 

Berliner Daniel Hardakar, writing for Telegraph Travel, said: “The government’s propaganda has been so total as to fully co-opt Berlin’s nonconformist reputation. Antifa types have become the foot soldiers of a government that, until very recently, were the class enemy. The omnipresent graffiti making vague claims about the imminent downfall of capitalism has been complemented by scrawled personal threats of violence to those not absolutely convinced of the decrees of Angela Merkel. 

“Maybe reflecting the desperation of an elite class that has invested every ounce of its credibility in a policy that, as is increasingly clear, does not work, government propaganda often does not even bother to cloak itself in altruism anymore. There is little of the apologetic dithering of Her Majesty’s Government. Simple threats like ‘Masks on or we close the area down’ are preferred. (They closed it down anyway).” 

Sweden

Lockdown severity: 2/10

Latest seven-day case rate: 515.8 per 100,000

Coronavirus Sweden Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus Sweden Spotlight Chart - Cases default

Sweden, which remains a lockdown virgin, has beefed up its Covid guidance in recent weeks. Residents are strongly urged only to socialise with people they live with, or just a few friends and relatives outside their household. They should “avoid places such as shops, shopping centres and public transport if they are crowded”, work from home as much as possible, and take extra care when visiting the elderly. But this remains mere guidance. Lovely things that make life worth living – from bars, restaurants and shops to hotels and saunas – remain open, while face masks, though recommended on public transport, are not mandatory. 

In fact, perhaps the only hard and fast rule right now is a ban on public gatherings of more than eight people. 

That could change, however. The Swedish government has sidelined Anders Tegnell, the country’s top epidemiologist and a champion of its “personal responsibility” approach, and a law was passed last week giving it the power to act more forcefully in future. “We see a great risk that we will be in a difficult situation for some time ahead,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told Swedish network SVT. “And we will be using it in the near future.”

He added: “We will see if we can do more in public transport, but it could also be about gyms, sports facilities, events and businesses that operate premises for parties.” It doesn’t sound like a full lockdown is coming any time soon, but tighter rules seem certain. 

Greece

Lockdown severity: 10/10

Latest seven-day case rate: 43.8 per 100,000

Coronavirus Greece Spotlight Chart - cases default
Coronavirus Greece Spotlight Chart - cases default

Greece has been in lockdown since early November and its government recently extended almost all curbs until at least January 18. The exception is kindergartens and primary schools, which were given permission to reopen. 

As things stand, there is a ban on non-essential movements outside of your home or accommodation (you must fill in a form or use Greek authorities’ free SMS service before you leave), and a 9pm to 5am curfew. Borders are shut to non-essential travel, non-essential shops (even for click and collect) are closed, as are bars and restaurants, and it is also mandatory to wear a mask in all public places (both indoors and outdoors), in all areas of Greece. 

Churches are closed too, but recently churches threw open their doors for The Epiphany, one of the country’s biggest religious festivals, when worshippers gather to celebrate Christ’s baptism. Faced with this open act of defiance, PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis was forced to allow limited attendance. “Any and every time the state has rivalled the church with some new reform or measure, it has lost,” Greek journalist Nikos Dimou commented.

Last week human rights groups warned that the Greek government is cracking down on protests under the pretext of fighting the virus. The nation’s Amnesty International branch documented cases of protesters being mistreated and overuse of tear gas. 

Norway

Lockdown severity: 3/10

Latest seven-day case rate: 85.5 per 100,000

Much of the focus in Scandinavia has been on Sweden’s lack of lockdown, with critics often comparing the country’s Covid record unfavourably with its neighbour to the west. Norway’s lockdown, however, was relatively brief and light. It began on March 12, but restrictions were eased within weeks and schools reopened in early May. In keeping with that approach, the only rule currently in place is a ban on large gatherings. Residents are also advised to avoid public transport where possible, but face masks are not recommended.  

What Norway did do, however, was keep its borders firmly closed until June, and strict rules on entry remain. Only EU/EEA nationals may enter and all must present evidence of a negative Covid test, take a second test within 24 hours of arrival, and self-isolate for 10 days. 

Switzerland

Lockdown severity: 6/10

Latest seven-day case rate: 296.8 per 100,000

Coronavirus Switzerland Spotlight Chart - cases default
Coronavirus Switzerland Spotlight Chart - cases default

Switzerland was dubbed the “new Sweden” back in November after it resisted calls for a lockdown despite its high Covid case rate. Finance minister Ueli Maurer warned that a second lockdown would be “disastrous”, accused the country’s Covid taskforce of “short-sightedness and moralising”, and branded its scientists “know-it-alls”. “We have to live, we have to be able to earn money, to be able to shop,” he said. 

Alas, the stand didn’t last long and Switzerland adopted a lockdown “light” last month, with measures to last until at least January 22 (but more likely until the end of February).  Restaurants (except for takeaways), bars, cultural venues and sports and leisure facilities are closed, while shops must close between 7pm and 6am and on Sundays and public holidays. Ski areas can stay open, however. 

Netherlands

Lockdown severity: 8/10

Latest seven-day case rate: 306.1 per 100,000

Coronavirus Netherlands Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus Netherlands Spotlight Chart - Cases default

The Dutch are also living under lockdown, with measures likely to last until at least February. Ministers met at prime minister Mark Rutte’s official residence on Sunday to discuss the Covid situation with key advisors, and Menno de Jong, a virologist and member of the government’s Outbreak Management Team, told Amsterdam broadcaster AT5 that the lockdown should be extended. “If the slight drop [in new infections] does not continue and the English mutation gets the upper hand, then we are more likely to see stricter measures,” he added.

The rules mean restaurants, bars, non-essential shops, hairdressers, theatres, cinemas, zoos, and indoor sporting venues are all closed. Hotels can open, but with room service only. Most schools have moved to remote teaching. Residents are advised to stay at home as much as possible, to avoid public transport, and to receive no more than two people aged 13 or over at home per day.  

Ireland

Lockdown severity: 10/10

Latest seven-day case rate: 926 per 100,000

Coronavirus Ireland Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus Ireland Spotlight Chart - Cases default

Not many countries have a higher Covid case rate than Britain right now, but Ireland is one (the others are the Czech Republic and Slovenia). The nation’s “Level Five” lockdown is as tough as it gets, with residents only permitted to travel within a 5km (three-mile) radius of their home. As with the UK, non-essential shops are closed, as are bars and restaurants – with no takeaway pints. Schools are also shut, and no visitors to your home (except for support bubbles) are allowed. Construction is closed, with limited exceptions, and click and collect retail is banned. The Irish government recommends that face coverings are worn in crowded workplaces, places of worship and in busy or crowded outdoor spaces where there is significant congregation.