European countries fear that their “demographic winter” will grow icier still as a result of a slump in births linked to the pandemic and anguish over an uncertain future.
The fall has been particularly acute in southern Europe, raising concerns for health and pension systems that were already under pressure.
The figures emerging refute widespread claims in the European media that a baby boom would follow the lockdowns, on the basis that couples were forced to spend time together with limited leisure activities.
In practice, the opposite has happened, with couples postponing plans to have children amid anguish over an uncertain future.
In January in France — nine months after its first lockdown — the National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies registered only 53,900 births, a fall of 13 per cent on the same period last year. The figure for December had been 7 per cent lower than a year earlier.
Amina Yamgnane, a Parisian gynaecologist, said that she had noted much “back-peddling by women and by couples who said to themselves that they didn’t have the means to have a baby at the moment and to bring it up”.
Italy recorded a 21.6 per cent fall in births in its major cities in December compared with December 2019. ISTAT, the country’s statistical agency, said that the drop was comparable to that recorded nine months after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1987.
With almost two thirds of babies born in wedlock in Italy — in France the proportion is one third — officials in Rome believe that the 50 per cent fall in marriages in 2020 will hit the birth rate.
The picture in Spain is similar, with a 20.4 per cent nationwide fall in births in December. The National Statistics Institute said that the 23,226 babies born in December was the lowest monthly number since it began registering births in 1941.
In Europe there are fears that the pandemic will accelerate a long-term trend that threatens to undermine the continent’s future.