Europe is racing to fight a surge in COVID-19 infections and the spread of the omicron variant, with some countries considering additional restrictions that would disrupt the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
From a new lockdown in the Netherlands to travel restrictions targeted at the U.K. and emergency meetings scheduled for southern Europe, the continent faces a critical week.
The spread of the highly-transmissible omicron strain risks slamming populations already weary of restrictions. It also comes at a time some countries, like Germany and Austria, were just getting their latest waves under control.
European nations have taken a varied approach to counter the winter COVID-19 wave, but most have emphasized the importance of accelerating vaccination and booster campaigns.
The omicron strain, first detected in Europe less than a month ago, will likely be dominant there by mid-January, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last week. Debate continues to rage over whether or not the variant produces milder illness than previous strains.
Much of the effort is focused on not repeating the experience of the U.K., where total COVID-19 infections — powered by omicron — rose by about 50% in a week to touch a record 93,000 on Friday.
Another 12,000 omicron cases were reported in the U.K. on Sunday, although government scientific advisers say most cases are going undetected and that the real daily number may already be above 200,000.
U.K. advisers have told the government that new measures are needed within days to protect the health care system. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, trying to avoid another lockdown, has thrown open the country’s vaccine booster program to anyone over 18, and a record 900,000 third shots were given on Sunday.
So far, one of the most effective vaccine programs in the world doesn’t appear to be slowing the spread of omicron, although deaths from coronavirus in the U.K. haven’t risen recently.
“We can’t afford to wait,” U.K. government scientific advisor Mark Woolhouse told Times Radio on Sunday, saying measures don’t have to mean restrictions, specifically, but can be increased testing and the rollout of booster shots.
“Let’s not just focus on restrictions but what level of interventions will make a difference to this surge,” Woolhouse said.
Here are the steps countries have taken or are discussing:
Health Minister Sajid Javid Sunday declined to rule out pre-Christmas restrictions but said any new measures would have to be voted on by parliament. That would require members to be recalled during the holiday recess. Johnson would likely face further rebellion within his ranks after 100 of his Conservative allies voted last week against much milder measures than the tougher curbs now being considered, requiring Johnson to rely on the opposition Labour party for passage.
A key minister, Lord David Frost, quit over the weekend, and warned Johnson in his resignation letter “not be tempted by the kind of coercive measures we have seen elsewhere.”
“There are no guarantees in this pandemic,” Javid said when asked whether he would rule out a so-called circuit-breaker lockdown. “At this point, we just have to keep everything under review.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan Saturday declared a “major incident” due to a rapid spread of the omicron variant across the the city, giving him more powers to fight the virus and seek government support. With so many people now staying home, the country has entered what some call a “stealth lockdown” that’s has left retail, hospitality and travel reeling. U.K. Chancellor Rishi Sunak talked with industry leaders in recent days about providing further aid.
The Dutch already made their move: the nation returned to a strict lockdown on Sunday. That means schools and non-essential shops are closed, and fewer visitors will be allowed in households. The steps come as the government said the rise of omicron will likely overburden its health care system in January. The new restrictions will remain in place until at least Jan. 14.
That’s a scenario Germany is trying to avoid, as its health care system continues to struggle with a virus wave that peaked in late November. Hospital demand isn’t expected to subside much for a month or more. The country joined Cyprus and France in imposing stricter rules for travelers from Britain, who’ll have to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival, upending holiday plans. France temporarily banned entry for many Britons last week, and Cyprus will require visitors from the U.K. ages 12 or above, regardless of vaccination status, to self-isolate. Germany’s new government is also considering a vaccine mandate.
As well as imposing a ban on U.K. arrivals, France is curbing outdoor revelry on New Year’s Eve to try to limit the spread and protect its hospitals. The government is also turning up the pressure on people to get vaccinated, and from January only immunized people will be able to get a “health pass” that gives access to bars, restaurants, medical facilities and cultural venues.
Spain will convene an online emergency meeting on Wednesday to analyze the evolution of the pandemic and discuss adopting new measures. Some regions are already requiring proof of vaccination to enter restaurants and bars, but have refrained from more aggressive steps that could put a drag on an economy heavily reliant on services and tourism.
On Thursday, Italy’s government will also hold an emergency meeting and may look at options such as requiring masks outdoors, shortening the validity of vaccine certificates, and possibly requiring inoculated people as well as the unvaccinated to take COVID-19 tests to access large events, according to people familiar with the matter.
A vaccine laggard, with less than 68% fully inoculated, Switzerland will exclude the unvaccinated from large parts of public life, such as restaurants, museums and gyms. The Swiss government also reintroduced a work-from-home requirement. The measures are in place until Jan. 24.
Also starting this week, Ireland will require bars, restaurants, cinemas and sport venues to shut down by 8 p.m. Omicron is already the dominant strain in the country, with public health advisers saying it makes up more than half of new cases.
Austria was in lockdown when omicron hit, after a low vaccine rate fed a surge in delta cases that swamped the country’s health care system. The general lockdown was lifted earlier this month in time for the holidays. The unvaccinated have also been offered a respite, but after the New Year will once again only be allowed to leave their homes to go to work, do essential shopping, or exercise. The country also mandated vaccines from February. Austria’s daily cases have fallen more than 75% from their peak, and vaccinations have advanced steadily in the past month.
The Polish government has ordered schools to switch to remote learning through Jan. 9, and tightened capacity limits in public spaces such as restaurants, hotels and cinemas. Limits were reduced to 30% of capacity from 50% previously. The government closed discos and nightclubs as of Dec. 15. The health ministry is also planning to make vaccines mandatory for medical staff, uniformed services and teachers as of March 1. Deaths from COVID-19 in the nation of 38 million people have been running at more than 500 a day.
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