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As new restrictions come into force here, how are other European countries tackling Omicron?

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen has warned that Omicron could be the dominant Covid-19 variant in Europe by mid-January.

A man wearing a Santa Claus costume plays the accordion on a balcony of a closed shop at the Dam Square in Amsterdam yesterday.
A man wearing a Santa Claus costume plays the accordion on a balcony of a closed shop at the Dam Square in Amsterdam yesterday.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

THE OMICRON VARIANT of Covid-19 has been detected in at least 89 countries to date and is likely to overtake Delta as the dominant variant in many countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.

The WHO said on Saturday that Omicron cases double every one-and-a-half to three days in countries with community transmission of the variant – that is, where cases are not just being passed on by people who picked up the virus abroad.

EU/EEA countries reporting cases without an epidemiological link to travel include Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Sweden.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen has warned that the Omicron variant could be dominant in Europe by mid-January.

Meanwhile, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is today expected to approve a fifth Covid vaccine, Novavax.

The EU has already signed a deal to buy up to 200 million doses of the two-shot vaccine pending approval by the Amsterdam-based watchdog. Novavax says its vaccine showed 90.4% efficacy against Covid-19 in a North American trial.

In Ireland, the Omicron variant is estimated to account for 52% of Ireland’s confirmed cases of Covid-19.

A further 5,124 new cases were confirmed by public health officials yesterday. As of 8am on Sunday, 436 people were in hospital with the virus and 107 people were in intensive care.

New restrictions announced by Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Friday came into effect today.

These measures 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.

There is speculation that further restrictions could be introduced in the coming weeks amid growing fears about Omicron. However, NPHET and a number of ministers have labelled this as “speculation” for now.

As the latest round of restrictions kick in here, let’s take a look at how the spread of Omicron is progressing in other European countries.

The Netherlands 

The Netherlands on Saturday announced a Christmas lockdown.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that all non-essential shops, cultural and entertainment venues must shut until 14 January, while schools will close until at least 9 January.

Screenshot 2021-12-20 11.14.51 Omicron cases in Europe and Africa Source: ECDC

The Dutch also face stricter limits on the number of guests allowed in their homes, though officials made exceptions for Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. Residents only will be permitted two visitors except for on 25 and 31 December, when four will be allowed.

“The Netherlands is going into lockdown again,” Rutte said, adding that the move was “unavoidable because of the fifth wave caused by the Omicron variant that is bearing down on us”.

More than 85% of the Dutch adult population is vaccinated against Covid-19, but fewer than 9% of adults have had a booster shot.

The Netherlands reported over 20,000 daily cases on several dates in late November but this figure has since reduced. Over 13,000 cases were confirmed yesterday.

The country’s National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) has reported a total of over 2.9 million Covid-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, with 20,420 reported deaths.

UK

The UK has seen the highest confirmed number of Omicron cases in Europe to date. In London, mayor Sadiq Khan declared a “major incident” in the British capital on Saturday, calling the Covid-19 case surge “hugely concerning”.

Britain registered record case numbers for three days in a row last week, prompting new regulations and reports that another lockdown is being considered. Most of the new cases recorded in London are of the Omicron variant.

Statistic: Number of confirmed COVID-19 Omicron variant cases in Europe as of December 17, 2021, by country | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

While a record 830,403 boosters were given in England on Saturday, a rate of around one million a day is needed if every adult is to be offered a booster jab by the end of the year.

Deaths in England of people with the Omicron variant have risen to 12, while hospital admissions of patients with confirmed or suspected Omicron increased to 104, according to the latest figures from the UK Health Security Agency.

A further 12,133 confirmed cases of the variant have been reported across the UK, the data on Sunday showed, bringing the total confirmed cases of Omicron across the four nations to 37,101.

In total, a further 82,886 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded in the UK as of 9am Sunday, the Government said.

2.64443089 Source: PA Graphics
A dose of the Moderna vaccine used in the UK’s booster programme increases neutralising antibodies against Omicron around 37-fold, the firm has announced.

Moderna said its preliminary data looking at Omicron was “reassuring”, though it will continue to develop a jab specific to the variant.

The data showed that 50mcg of the Moderna vaccine (the half-dose recommended by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation for the UK’s booster programme) increased neutralising antibody levels against Omicron approximately 37-fold compared to pre-boost levels, while a full dose increased it 83-fold.

The JCVI in the UK did not recommend a full dose due to the increased risk of side-effects and after a UK study found a half dose still provided very good protection.

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab today said he cannot make any “hard, fast guarantees” that more restrictions will not be needed ahead of Christmas Day.

Raab said the data is “always under review” but claimed people are in a “better position to enjoy Christmas with loved ones” this year. But he was unable to offer any guarantees as he advised people to be “careful and cautious” in the coming days.

Amid reports that ministers have pushed back against calls from scientific advisers for new measures to tackle the Omicron variant before Christmas, Raab offered his support for the Government’s approach while noting all Cabinet ministers ask questions about the advice received.

Confirmed cases of the faster-spreading strain have risen by more than 12,000 in the UK – and London’s cases alone topped 10,000, according to the latest data on Sunday.

About one third of the Cabinet are said to be reluctant to support new restrictions in the coming days, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak among them, according to The Times.

The newspaper reported that 10 ministers are resisting a call by the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance at the weekend for new restrictions to be brought in as soon as possible to prevent the health service being overwhelmed.

Johnson has been presented with three options to tackle the spread of the virus, according to the Daily Telegraph. The paper reported that they range from guidance asking people to limit indoor contacts, to rules on household mixing, social distancing and a curfew on pubs and restaurants and, thirdly, a full lockdown.

The Telegraph quoted one unnamed Cabinet minister as saying data presented by Vallance and England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty on Saturday was “just trashed by the Cabinet”. The source said “guidelines, rather than restrictions, are entirely possible”.

Brexit minister David Frost also offered an insight into the mood of some within the Cabinet after stating he quit as minister over the weekend because “I don’t support coercive policies on Covid”.

“The Prime Minister has got some very difficult decisions to take,” he told Sky News.

Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of Government advisory body, the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B), told BBC Breakfast: “The safest thing is not to meet up before Christmas.

“If you want a good Christmas dinner, I would say be very careful about meeting up before Christmas.”

France

French Prime Minister Jean Castex on Friday likened the spread of the Omicron variant in Europe to “lightning”, adding it would be the dominant strain in France from the start of 2022.

Castex added that while much remains unknown about the variant “it does not seem to be more dangerous than the Delta variant and the data available to us indicate that complete vaccination coverage with the booster dose protects well against severe forms of the disease”.

Nearly 3,000 people are in intensive care with Covid-19 in France according to latest figures.

Meanwhile people will become eligible for booster jabs four months from the date of their second vaccination down from five, Castex added. And he said the government would announce new measures to tackle non-vaccination from next year.

“While we have given time, a lot of time for those French people who were hesitant and had doubts, in January we will strengthen the incentive for vaccination, because it is not acceptable that the refusal of a few million French people to be vaccinated, puts the life of an entire country at risk,” he said.

From Saturday, travellers need to show a compelling reason for travel between Britain and France, under rules announced on Thursday by France to combat the Omicron variant.

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The only exemptions for needing a compelling reason are for French and European travellers returning to France and British passengers heading in the other direction.

France on Thursday justified the new rules “faced with the extremely rapid spread of the Omicron variant in the UK” and to give time for its own booster programme to find the upper hand against the variant.

The new rules are set to bring havoc to numerous sectors, with this weekend’s European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup rugby matches between clubs from the UK and France postponed, organisers said on Friday.

Castex called on local authorities to cancel fireworks and concerts on New Year’s Eve to limit the spread of coronavirus, and said the consumption of alcohol on public roads will be outlawed during the celebrations.

Christmas restrictions

A number of European countries are enforcing fresh restrictions, to varying degrees, over Christmas.

In Germany, which has tightened restrictions notably affecting the unvaccinated — who are barred from most public places — needs fresh measures urgently, a government advisory group said.

“If the spread of the Omicron variant in Germany continues as it has done so far, a significant part of the population will fall sick and/or will go into quarantine simultaneously,” a report by the 19-member panel said.

The report did not raise the spectre of a new lockdown, but urged “strong reductions in contacts” within the populace in “the coming days”.

Israel’s health ministry recommended banning nationals from travelling to the United States, and added several European countries to its Covid “red list”.

On 12 December, Austria ended lockdown restrictions for vaccinated people across most of the country, three weeks after re-imposing strict rules to combat a rising wave of coronavirus infections.

The rules, which vary by region within the country, largely allowed for the reopening of theatres, museums and other cultural and entertainment venues.

An 11pm curfew remains for most restaurants, and face masks are still required on public transport and inside shops and public spaces.

Austria had several daily cases number above 15,000, but they have since declined with 2,167 new cases confirmed on Saturday.

Contains reporting from © AFP 2021 and Press Association  

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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