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Europe's COVID-19 curbs prompt pushback amid bleak countdown to Christmas

LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) - A wave of COVID-19 lockdowns and curbs has stirred resistance across Europe, with the right-wing British politician who helped force an EU referendum harnessing popular anger at a new lockdown by recasting his Brexit Party under a new banner.

Britain, which has the highest official death toll in Europe from COVID-19, is grappling with more than 20,000 new coronavirus cases a day and scientists have warned the “worst-case” scenario of 80,000 dead could be exceeded.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended a second lockdown in England from critics who said it was either unnecessary or too late, arguing now was the time to prevent a “medical and moral disaster”.

“We are fighting a disease... When the data changes of course we must change course too,” he told parliament.

Cast by his supporters as the godfather of the movement to quit the European Union, Brexit Party founder Nigel Farage said Johnson had terrified Britons into submission with a second lockdown.

“The single most pressing issue is the government’s woeful response to coronavirus,” Farage and Brexit Party chairman Richard Tice said in a joint article in the Daily Telegraph, announcing his Reform UK party.

Instead of a lockdown, Farage proposed targeting those most at risk and said people should not be criminalised for trying to live normal lives such as meeting family for Christmas.

France, Germany, Italy, Britain, the Netherlands and other countries have announced second lockdowns or strict new curbs as infections surge.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said now was the time for world leaders to act.

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“This is another critical moment for action,” Tedros said. “Another critical moment for leaders to step up. And another critical moment for people to come together for a common purpose. Seize the opportunity, it’s not too late.”

Tedros was addressing a WHO news briefing in Geneva from self-isolation at home after announcing on Twitter that he had been in contact with a person infected with COVID-19.

Small shopkeepers in France, which reported a daily record 52,518 new COVID-19 infections on Monday, have complained about being forced to close while supermarkets are allowed to sell “non-essential goods” such as shoes, clothes, beauty products and flowers because they also sell food.

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Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Monday French supermarkets would face the same limits on selling non-essential goods but shopowners were not allowed to challenge the lockdown, in place until at least Dec. 1.

“I am not optimistic that in just four weeks we will lower the number of new cases to the level announced by the president (5,000 new cases per day),” said epidemiologist Dominique Castigliola, director of research at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research.

“We will need more time. I don’t think we’ll be able to hold big family meals at Christmas. That seems very unlikely to me.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel said there would be no big New Year parties in Germany, but families should be able to get together for Christmas.

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“Throughout the winter months, we will have to limit private contacts,” she told a news conference. “The light at the end of the tunnel is still quite a long way off.”

Police in the Spanish capital, Madrid, on Sunday raided 81 illegal parties, 18 drinking sessions known in Spain as “botellones”, and 10 bars which broke COVID-19 curbs.

Protests flared against new restrictions across Italy last week, with violence reported in Milan and Turin. Italy will tighten restrictions but is holding back from a lockdown, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Monday.

Italy’s daily tally of infections has increased 10-fold over the last month.

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More than 46.37 million people have been infected globally and over 1.2 million have died from the respiratory disease, according to a Reuters tally. The United States, which holds a presidential election on Tuesday, leads the world with more than 9 million cases and 230,700 deaths.

WHO technical lead for COVID-19 Maria Van Kerkhove said the latest spike in infections was stretching health services.

“One of challenges that we are seeing across North America, across Europe, is that the increases in cases, the increases in hospitalisation, the increases in ICU admissions are happening at the same time,” she told the Geneva briefing.

“In the spring there was some staggering of this. But it’s happening in many countries at the same time, where many systems are becoming overwhelmed at the same time.”

World shares recovered from one-month lows as strengthening factory data in China and Europe offset news of lockdowns, while investors prepared for more volatility arising from the U.S. election.

U.S. President Donald Trump has continually downplayed the virus, mocking Democratic challenger Joe Biden for wearing a mask and social distancing at campaign rallies, a tactic which enlivens his base supporters but infuriates his opponents.

Trump has also ridiculed his top coronavirus task force adviser, Anthony Fauci, who has contradicted Trump’s assertions that the U.S. fight against the virus is “rounding the turn”.

The United States reported 67,862 new cases on Sunday, the highest number it has reported on the last day of any week.

Reporting by Reuters bureaux worldwide; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Janet Lawrence and Alex Richardson

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