Covid-19: Europe tries to stem the tide of the Omicron variant


While France and Germany are betting everything on vaccination, neighboring countries are increasing restrictions, from curfews to the closure of public places.

Amandine Alexandre (in London), Slim Allagui (in Copenhagen), Pierre Avril (in Berlin), Anne Rovan (in Brussels)

Faced with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, countries in Europe are reacting – or anticipating – by taking increasingly radical measures. While France has decided to turn the health pass into a vaccine pass, putting pressure on the 6 million unvaccinated, our neighbors are resorting to a wide range of restrictions.

• The Netherlands is re-defining

It’s a cold shower for the Dutch. The head of government, Mark Rutte, announced on Saturday evening a lockdown until January 14 to limit the spread of Omicron. “If we wait to learn everything about this variant, we will probably arrive too late”, he justified. The Netherlands is the first EU country to take such measures. All non-essential stores, cultural establishments and sports halls lowered the curtains on Sunday morning. Only gas stations, supermarkets, bakeries and pharmacies may remain open until 8 p.m. No more than two visitors per household and per day may be received at home during this period. The rule is relaxed for Christmas and New Years, however, with a maximum of four guests. Schools will keep their doors closed until at least January 9.

These decisions come as the peak of the fifth wave linked to the Delta variant is now exceeded. Only 100 Omicron cases have been identified at this point. But Dutch health authorities estimate that this variant will be in the majority by the end of the year. However, the Netherlands is not armed to face it. Not only are hospitals saturated, but the vaccination campaign, launched late, is slipping for lack of sufficient personnel – not only for making appointments, but also for injecting doses. According to the latest figures from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, only 10.6% of the Dutch adult population received a third dose, half the EU average (23.5%) . In order to increase the pace in vaccination centers and general practitioners, discussions are underway to remove the 15-hour surveillance imposed after the injection.

• England seeks a “firewall”

A few days before Christmas, the English are plunged into uncertainty. On Sunday, the Minister of Health hinted that the government could introduce additional restrictions shortly, without further details. “It’s time to be more careful. We know that Omicron is spreading at top speed ”, Sajid Javid said on the BBC. The minister suggested that “firewall” measures – which the press had announced for January – could take place before the end of this week.

While 90,000 new cases of Covid were recorded on Friday and Saturday, British scientists are sounding the alarm. According to projections, the number of contaminations across the Channel could reach between 600,000 and 2 million cases per day by the end of the month. This new peak in the epidemic could lead to between 3,000 and 10,000 hospitalizations per day, as well as between 600 and 6,000 daily deaths.

London remains the main focus of the Omicron variant and the number of hospitalizations there is on the rise. The mayor declared a “Major incident” which should lead to better coordination of public services. Boris Johnson is counting on the acceleration of the number of vaccinations: Saturday, 830,000 boosters were administered in England.

• Ireland under curfew

In Ireland, the authorities are trying to curb the spread of the virus by restricting the opening hours of pubs, restaurants and closed places. They will have to lower their curtains from 8 p.m. this Monday and until the end of January. The goal, explained Prime Minister Michael Martin, is to “Reduce social contacts from 20% to 30%”. “We just can’t wait to see what happens because it will be too late”, added the Taoiseach, who fears a surge in hospitalizations.

• Danes deprived of outings

The Danes rushed to cinemas, theaters, museums, concert halls, casinos and other attractions on Saturday to enjoy the last hours of entertainment allowed before the closing, Sunday at 8 a.m., of all places of recreation for four weeks. A measure decided the day before by the government and approved by a very large majority in Parliament.“We must impose restrictions to curb the alarming progression of new contaminations”, justified the Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen. New cases, which have been rising steadily since the start of last week, hit a record high on Friday: 11,194 in 24 hours, including 2,550 infected with Omicron.

More than 12,000 infections by this variant have been recorded to date in the Scandinavian kingdom, raising concern among health authorities in a country where 76.2% of citizens are however vaccinated. New projections from the SSI Serology Institute estimate that from Christmas onwards the country will have between 9,000 and 45,000 people infected per day. A gap of one to five that would change everything: “45,000 people infected, it is a very frightening figure, but it is undoubtedly not an unrealistic calculation”, qualifies epidemiologist Viggo Andreasen, hoping that this scenario “Does not become reality”.

• Germany restores quarantine

Despite a slight drop in contamination in recent weeks, Germany must prepare for a new “Massive wave” linked to the proliferation of Omicron, warned the Minister of Health, Karl Lauterbach. Under pressure from the regions, the federal government this weekend suspended trafficking from the United Kingdom, the focus of the development of the new variant, after classifying France and Denmark as areas of infection on Friday. “High risk” . Berlin will therefore impose a period of quarantine on unvaccinated travelers from these countries, as well as Norway, Lebanon and Andorra.

Rather than confinement, the new ruling coalition relies mainly on vaccination, the rate of which remains lower than that of other large European countries, in particular because of organizational difficulties. It has become mandatory for healthcare staff – with a deadline set for March 15, 2022 – before extending to the entire population. A bill will soon be tabled in the Bundestag, as the anti-vaccine movement is radicalized. Some regions, including Berlin and Bavaria – the Länder conduct their health policy – have also started to immunize children. All of them, with varying degrees of coercion, reserve access to public places, including shops, to protected persons.

Belgium under tension

In Belgium, the Omicron variant already represents 10% of new contaminations. A meeting of the authorities is scheduled for Wednesday. Should we expect yet another turn of the screw, or even a re-containment? Probably not, even if the scientists are also calling for more measures. “A lockdown is not on the government’s table”, Walloon Health Minister Christie Morreale assured Sunday.

Belgium seems better equipped than the Netherlands in the face of the new variant: 30% of those over 18 have already received their booster dose. Since the end of November, all nightclubs have been closed while bars and restaurants must lower the curtain at 11 p.m. The restrictions linked to the health pass are contested by part of the population. On Sunday, thousands of people – 3,500 according to the police, 50,000 according to the organizers – demonstrated for the third time in the streets of Brussels at the call of the collective Belgium United for Freedom. Police repeatedly charged after throwing projectiles.

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