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Shoppers are seen in London's West End as UK records 119,789 new coronavirus cases Alamy Stock Photo
covid christmas

Lockdowns, restrictions, and surging infections: Europe rings in another pandemic Christmas

Both France and the UK today registered their highest case numbers since the start of the pandemic.

LAST UPDATE | 24 Dec 2021

OMICRON’S RISE HAS heralded another pandemic-tinged Christmas, with longed-for family reunions overshadowed by the prospect of yet more Covid restrictions.

For a second straight year, surging infections have complicated yuletide plans with the emergence of the ultra-infectious Omicron variant.

British experts said the risk of hospitalisation was as much as 70% lower among people infected with Omicron compared to the previously dominant Delta strain. Scientists have welcomed the similar conclusions of two British studies, but warned that Omicron is highly contagious and could still lead to more overall severe cases.

In Ireland, the Department of Health said that Omicron is estimated to make up approximately 83% of reported cases, based on analysis using the ‘S gene target failure’, reporting 11, 182 new cases today – Ireland’s highest daily total. 

Restrictions announced by Taoiseach Micheál Martin last week will last until 30 January and include all restaurants and bars closing at 8pm, 50% capacity at live events and sports, and tighter movement restrictions for close contacts of Covid cases.

The number of Covid-19 cases shot up by almost a fifth across the world this week, as the pandemic picked up speed in most regions, with Europe bearing the brunt.

The average number of new daily coronavirus cases over the past week increased by 18% to more than 749,000, according to an AFP tally to yesterday. It was the tenth consecutive weekly rise.

‘A difficult phase’

In Europe, governments are reimposing a variety of safety measures. The Netherlands is back in lockdown while Spain and Italy have made wearing masks compulsory outdoors.

And with the United Kingdom recording 122,186 cases in 24 hours – a record-high number of Covid-19 infections – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested getting a vaccine booster shot as a Christmas gift for relatives.

The UK is among the worst-hit countries in Europe with a virus death toll of 147,857. 

Case numbers surged 48% over the last 7 days, as compared to the previous week, while hospitalisations and death figures have risen much less sharply. The UK Health Security Agency said Thursday that figures so far show the risk of being admitted to hospital with Omicron infection to be up to 70% less than with the previously dominant Delta variant.

The government agency cautioned however that the results were “preliminary and highly uncertain” since they are based on a small sample of cases of hospitalisations so far.

Meanwhile, Scotland announced it would close nightclubs from next week, including on New Year’s Eve. The number of cases of the Omicron variant has more than doubled, Scottish Government figures show.

Snag_9cc368 Statistica Statistica

In France, the government urged people to get booster shots just three months after initial jabs, down from the current suggestion of five months as it sought to fight off the fast-spreading Omicron.

France set a new daily coronavirus infections record today, registering 94,124 cases over 24 hours, the highest figure since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some 16,173 people are currently hospitalised for Covid-19 in the country, with 3,254 of them in emergency care. Some 122,462 people have died of Covid-19 in France since the start of the pandemic.

Italy reimposed the mandatory wearing of face masks in outdoor spaces, with a higher grade version required for cinemas, theatres or on public transport.

“It’s a difficult phase,” said Health Minister Roberto Speranza, whose country has banned all celebrations and closed nightclubs until the end of January.

Spain’s Catalonia is to reimpose a night-time curfew for a fortnight from Christmas Eve, while, nationwide, Spain will reintroduce obligatory masks outdoors except for sporting activities, or when alone or with household members in mountainous or seaside settings.

German authorities are introducing new contact restrictions, while most regions are shutting nightclubs and putting other measures in place. In most cases, the curbs are set to take effect just after Christmas, though a few will go into force starting today. 

The Netherlands last week closed all non-essential shops, restaurants, bars, cinemas, museums and theatres until 14 January and closed schools until at least 9 January, in a return to Europe’s toughest lockdowns this winter.

The Dutch government limited guests at home to only two people except for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, 26 December and the New Year period when four guests are permitted. And gatherings of only two people are allowed outdoors.

amsterdam-netherlands-19-dec-2021-abandoned-mouth-cap-and-feet-and-legs-of-people-strolling-through-the-locked-down-kalverstraat-usually-one-of-the-most-busy-shopping-streets-of-amsterdam-as-from People strolling through the locked-down Kalverstraat, usually one of the busiest shopping streets of Amsterdam. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

milan-italy-24th-dec-2021-queue-at-pharmacy-to-purchase-rapid-test-pads-for-covid-19-the-new-wave-with-the-omicron-variant-increased-infections-under-the-christmas-holiday-during-queue-at-pharmac In Milan, people queue rapid Covid-19 tests as infections rise in the Italian city. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Covid vaccine passes

Vaccine passes have become compulsory for a variety of public events across Europe. In the Czech Republic, the regulation has been extended to pig slaughters – a pre-Christmas tradition in which a butcher comes to people’s homes to provide meat for holiday season delicacies.

The regulation states that vaccine passes are now required to participate in these “pig slaughter parties” and up to 1,000 people can attend the events, which usually have only a few family members present.

In England, vaccine passes are now required in nightclubs and pubs with dance floors or “space for dancing”.

The requirement in pubs only applies from 1am, however, meaning that revellers can go to the venue before that time so as not to be asked for a pass by bouncers. Entertainment venue owners have baulked at the prospect of asking staff to make their way across dance floors to check passes after the 1am threshold.

Meanwhile, attending Christmas services in Greek churches has become something of a conundrum. The government in November decreed that the unvaccinated had to produce a rapid test or proof of vaccination to be able to go to church.

The governing body of the Orthodox Church of Greece, where many clergymen have expressed sceptical views about vaccines, has said it is not in a position to conduct checks at the entrance of churches.

Greece also said people must wear face masks both indoors and outside during Christmas and New Year’s gatherings.

People without certificates in Lithuania are also not allowed to go to large shopping centres, gyms or spas. They are not allowed to enter restaurants but can purchase takeaways or use outdoor seating – an unlikely prospect as temperatures drop as low as minus 10 degrees Celsius in the capital Vilnius.

Across the miles

Christmas gatherings will be easier than a year ago for some in many other places around the world.

Most Australians are allowed to travel interstate over the festive break for the first time in two years, even as case numbers hit record highs.

Millions of Americans are also on the move during the busy travel days before Christmas, even as Covid infections with Omicron surpass the peak of the Delta wave and hospitals run out of space for patients.

However, thousands of them are set to face a grim holiday weekend, with major carrier United cancelling 120 flights because infection numbers had impacted flight crews and other operations.

orlando-florida-usa-23rd-dec-2021-people-are-seen-in-a-tsa-security-checkpoint-line-at-orlando-international-airport-two-days-before-christmas-due-to-the-increase-and-the-spread-of-covid-19-and-o People are seen in a TSA security checkpoint line at Orlando International Airport two days before Christmas. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio said famous New Year’s Eve celebrations in Times Square would be drastically scaled back due to what the city called a “staggering” surge in cases. In past years, some 58,000 New Yorkers gathered to watch a giant ball drop marking the arrival of a new year, but next week the capacity will be reduced to 15,000, and all revellers will have to wear a mask and be vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Ecuador becomes the first country to make vaccines compulsory for everyone including children as young as five as the Omicron variant arrives in the South American country.

Vaccination is mandatory in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Indonesia, Micronesia and New Caledonia, for adults.

The coronavirus has killed at least 5,385,564 people since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP.

Record numbers of new infections since the start of have been passed this week so far in the UK, Denmark, Spain, France, Canada, Finland, Australia, Kenya, Malta, South Sudan, Iceland and Monaco.

Taking into account excess mortality linked to Covid-19, the World Health Organization estimates the overall death toll could be two to three times higher.

But in some positive news, the US Food and Drug Administration authorised Merck’s Covid pill for high-risk adults, a day after giving the green light to a similar Pfizer product. The pill developed by Merck is taken within five days of symptom onset.

It has been shown to reduce Covid hospitalisations and deaths by 30% among at-risk people, whereas Pfizer’s pill reduced the same outcomes by almost 90%.

Pills that are available at pharmacies are likely to be much easier to access than synthetic antibody treatments, which require infusions at hospitals or specialised centres. But health authorities maintain that vaccines are still the best protection against any variant, and are encouraging booster shots.

With reporting from Adam Daly 

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