Europeans Reimpose Restrictions as Omicron Sweeps Continent
LONDON — Nations across Europe are moving to reimpose tougher measures to stem a new wave of COVID-19 infections spurred by the highly transmissible omicron variant, triggering calls for protests from Paris to Barcelona.
The number of cases grew, so ministers from France, Cyprus, and Austria tightened travel restrictions. Paris canceled its New Year’s Eve fireworks. Denmark shut down theaters, concert halls amusement parks and museums. Ireland placed a curfew of 8 pm on bars and restricted attendance indoors and outdoors at events.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan underscored the official concern about the climbing cases and their potential to overwhelm the health care system by declaring a major incident Saturday, a move that allows local councils in Britain’s capital to coordinate work more closely with emergency services.
Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin captured the sense of the continent in an address to the nation, saying the new restrictions were needed to protect lives and livelihoods from the resurgent virus.
“None of this is easy,” Martin said Friday night. “We are all exhausted with COVID and the restrictions it requires. All the difficulties, disappointments, and frustrations can take their toll. But it is the reality that we are dealing with.”
According to the World Health Organization, the omicron coronavirus variant was detected in 89 countries. COVID-19 cases of this variant have been doubled every 1.5-3 days in areas with community transmission. This is not an exception.
WHO stated that there are still many questions regarding omicron, such as how effective the COVID-19 vaccines against it, and whether severe illnesses can be caused by this variant.
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 U.N. health agency said.
The Netherlands’ government ministers met on Saturday to hear advice from experts. They recommended that the partial lockdown be extended, officials stated. This was in response to recent decreases in infection rates.
Dutch Health Minister Hugo de Jonge didn’t say what measures the government might impose as he headed into the meeting. “There are very serious concerns,” he told reporters in The Hague. ”That’s why we’re meeting on Saturday to see what we need to do.”
Shoppers flocked to the Dutch shopping centers, fearing that it would be their last chance before Christmas.
Rotterdam municipality tweeted that it was “too busy in the center” of the port city and told people: “Don’t come to the city.” Amsterdam also warned that the city’s main shopping street was busy and urged people to stick to coronavirus rules.
The U.K. has seen an increase in confirmed cases per day and the government is now requiring that masks be worn inside. People are also required to present proof of current vaccinations or negative coronavirus tests when they go to large parties and nightclubs.
The moves cause anger.
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!” and told passersby to remove their face coverings.
Hundreds of people blocked traffic as they marched with signs bearing slogans such as “Vaccine passports kill our freedoms” and “Don’t comply.” Other signs had the faces of Johnson or U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid and read, “Give them the boot.”
British scientists warn that the government must do more to stop hospitals becoming overwhelmed.
The BBC reports that leaked minutes of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies suggest a ban against indoor mixing and hospitality.
Britain and other countries are also increasing their booster shot rates after preliminary data revealed that only two doses of vaccine against the omicron strain were effective. In Britain, shopping malls, cathedrals and football stadiums have been transformed into mass vaccination centres.
During a visit to a mass vaccination pop-up clinic at London soccer team Chelsea’s stadium on Saturday, Khan said the running of public services 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,” he told the BBC. “I’m incredibly worried about staff absences in the (National Health Service), in the fire brigade, in the police service, in our councils across London.”
Omicron is now the dominant coronavirus variant in London and efforts were stepped up to reach people who haven’t yet been vaccinated or boosted.
“I want to make a direct appeal to the more than 1 million Londoners who are yet to come forward for any COVID-19 vaccinations — it’s never too late to get your first or second dose,” the mayor said. “It will help to protect you, your loved ones and our NHS.”
France’s government declared Wednesday that the vaccine will be given to all children between 5 and 11 years of age starting Wednesday. Prime Minister Jean Castex said Friday that with the omicron variant spreading like “lightning,” the government proposed requiring proof of vaccination for those entering restaurants, cafes and other public establishments. Parliament must approve the pending legislation.
Paris protestors were scheduled to demonstrate against the vaccination pass and government restrictions.
Thousands of opponents of vaccine requirements and mask mandates protested Saturday in Hamburg, Berlin, Düsseldorf and other German cities. According to Austrian media, the protestors reached tens of thousand.
Courtney Bonnell was in London, Emily Schultheis (Vienna), Mike Corder (Amsterdam), and Thomas Adamson (Paris) all contributed to the report.