Nations across Europe have moved to reimpose tougher measures to stem a new wave of COVID-19 infections spurred by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
- The Netherlands is being locked down until next year
- Omicron is now the dominant coronavirus variant in London
- The new variant has been detected in 89 countries
The Netherlands led the way by imposing a nationwide lockdown.
All non-essential stores, bars and restaurants will be closed until mid-January, caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte said at a hastily arranged press conference on Saturday night.
In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan underscored the official concern about the climbing cases and their potential to overwhelm the UK’s health care system by declaring a major incident.
The Mayor’s declaration allows local councils in Britain’s capital to coordinate work more closely with emergency services.
Dutch shops, bars, restaurants, schools and universities will all be shut until 2022. (AP: Peter Dejong)
Alarmed ministers in France, Cyprus and Austria also tightened travel restrictions.
Paris cancelled its New Year’s Eve fireworks. Likewise, Denmark has closed theatres, concert halls, amusement parks and museums.
Ireland imposed an 8pm curfew on pubs and bars and limited attendance at indoor and outdoor events.
Omicron found in 89 countries
The World Health Organization said the Omicron variant had now been detected in 89 countries.
COVID-19 cases involving the variant are doubling every 1.5 to 3 days in places with community transmission.
Major questions about Omicron remain unanswered, including how effective existing COVID-19 vaccines are against it and whether the variant produces severe illness in many infected individuals, WHO said.
Yet Omicron’s “substantial growth advantage” over the Delta variant means it is likely to soon overtake Delta as the dominant form of the virus in countries where the new variant is spreading locally, the UN health agency said.
Another Christmas with COVID-19
Shops across Europe have been swarmed by Christmas shoppers, causing some governments to urge people to stay away. (AP: Malte Krudewig)
In the Netherlands, not only public venues will be affected by the new lockdown.
Residents will only be allowed to have two visitors, except for on Christmas and at New Year, when four will be allowed, according to Mr Rutte.
He said the new lockdown was “unavoidable because of the fifth wave caused by the Omicron variant that is bearing down on us”.
In the Netherlands, shoppers fearing the worst swarmed to commercial areas of Dutch cities earlier Saturday, thinking it might be their last chance to buy Christmas gifts.
“I can hear the whole of the Netherlands sighing,” Mr Rutter said in his lockdown announcement.
“All this, exactly one week before Christmas. Another Christmas that is completely different from what we want. Very bad news again for all those businesses and cultural institutions that rely on the holidays.”
The Dutch public health institute’s director, Jaap van Dissel, described the shutdown as a preventative move that would “buy time” for more people to get booster vaccines and for the nation’s health care system to prepare for a possible new surge in infections.
In the UK, where confirmed daily cases soared to record numbers this week, the government has reimposed a requirement for masks to be worn indoors and ordered people to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test when going to nightclubs and large events.
But the moves caused anger.
Protesters gathered in London, blocking traffic as they marched with signs bearing slogans such as “Vaccine passports kill our freedoms” and “Don’t comply”.(AP: Ian West)
Critics of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s latest coronavirus restrictions flooded Oxford Street, a popular London shopping area, on Saturday.
The maskless protesters blew whistles, yelled “Freedom!”, told passers-by to remove their face coverings and marched with banners showing the faces of Mr Johnson and the UK’s Health Secretary, accompanied with slogans such as: “Give them the boot.”
Scientists are warning the British government it needs to go further to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. Leaked minutes from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies suggested a ban on indoor mixing and hospitality, the BBC reported.
Many countries in Europe are converting shopping centres, cathedrals and sports stadiums into mass vaccination centres.(AP: Christophe Ena)
Britain and other nations are also accelerating the pace of booster shots after early data showed that two doses of vaccine were less effective against the Omicron variant.
Omicron spreading like ‘lightning’
Omicron is now the dominant coronavirus variant in London, and efforts are being stepped up to reach people who have not yet been vaccinated or boosted.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said public services ranging from ambulances to police calls could be impeded by the rapidly spreading variant.
“The big issue we have is the number of Londoners who have this virus, and that’s leading to big issues in relation to staff absences and the ability of our public services to run at the optimum levels, Mr Khan told the BBC.
In France, the government is starting to vaccinate children in the 5 to 11 age group.
Prime Minister Jean Castex said Omicron was spreading like “lightning”.
He said the government would move to require proof of vaccination for entry to restaurants, cafes and other public establishments. The action requires parliamentary approval.
People gather to protest against Italy’s COVID-19 Green Pass rules.(AP: Fabio Ferrari )
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said new restrictions were needed to protect lives and livelihoods from the resurgent virus.
“None of this is easy,” Mr Martin said.
“We are all exhausted with COVID and the restrictions it requires. The twists and turns, the disappointments and the frustrations take a heavy toll on everyone. But it is the reality that we are dealing with.”
Thousands of opponents of vaccine requirements and mask mandates protested on Saturday in Hamburg, Berlin and other German cities.
In Austria, local media reported the crowds swelled to tens of thousands.