28th Mar 2023

Will Christmas be cancelled again?

  • As the epidemiological situation worsens in the UK, many EU countries imposed stricter rules on travellers coming from Britain (Photo: Mia Martins)
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The surge of infections and emergence of the more-transmissible Omicron variant has raised concerns about possible lockdown restrictions in the EU - but for the thousands of Europeans who recently tested positive Christmas is already cancelled.

Omicron has been described by EU officials as a "real threat" that is quickly spreading across member states, threatening both travel and the festive holiday season.

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  • European travel map developed by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control as of 16 December (Photo: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control)

"Like many of you, I'm sad that once again this Christmas will be overshadowed by the pandemic," said European Commission president Ursula von Der Leyen last week.

The European travel map developed by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has turned red again, with several countries reporting record-high Covid-19 cases driven by a new wave of infections.

The Netherlands went into a full lockdown on Sunday (19 December) amid concerns over the spread of Omicron.

Non-essential shops, bars, restaurants and other venues like museums and gyms will be closed until mid-January, while schools will re-open on 9 January.

"Omicron is spreading even faster than we feared, so we must intervene now," Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said on Saturday, admitting Christmas will again be "completely different from what we would like".

While Omicron still accounts for only a small part of the infections in the Netherlands, about 25 percent of new infections in Amsterdam are linked to it.

In Denmark, where the variant accounts for one-fifth of new daily cases, the government has proposed new restrictions. Those restrictions, which still need to be approved, include closing cinemas and theatres, curbing large crowds in shops and stores, and banning serving alcohol after 10PM.

Danish health officials said that the new proposed rules were precautionary.

New Year's Eve cancelled

Germany, meanwhile, is mulling stricter restrictions after the government's new scientific panel called to limit contacts in public venues and private gatherings.

The new German health minister Karl Lauterbach has ruled out a lockdown before Christmas, but access to restaurants, bars and other venues is expected to be limited only for those vaccinated or recovered, Reuters reported.

Nevertheless, regional leaders have anticipated the closure of pubs, discos and big New Year's Eve parties.

Similarly, French authorities have ordered all nightclubs to close for four weeks over the holiday season.

And Paris municipal authorities announced on Saturday that all the traditional festivities planned on the Champs-Elysees for 31 December have now been cancelled.

Ireland, for its part, has imposed an 8PM curfew for pubs, restaurants and other public events until the end of January — with health authorities warning of further restrictions if the situation worsens.

Polish right-wing government forced nightclubs to close since 15 December, except for New Year's parties.

Omicron has been already detected in 89 countries, and it is expected to become the dominant variant in Europe in early 2022.

The UK's dilemma

It is estimated that Omicron has now replaced Delta as the most dominant strain in the UK, where daily coronavirus cases have increased by 52 percent over the past seven days compared with the previous week.

British health minister Sajid Javid said on Sunday that the new strain accounts for 60 percent of cases in the country and 80 percent in the capital.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson held an emergency meeting on Monday to consider tightening restrictions ahead of Christmas - amid weeks of the so-called Downing Street 'partygate' scandal.

New restrictions, however, are only expected as of 28 December, according to British media reports.

Last week, Johnson said that this holiday season will be "considerably better than last Christmas".

But health authorities are calling for stricter restrictions to prevent an increase in hospital admissions and deaths.

As the epidemiological situation worsens in the UK, many EU countries have imposed stricter rules on travellers coming from Britain, such as quarantines and mandatory negative tests upon arrival. Germany has already barred all arrivals from the UK, bar German nationals and residents, who even then must be negative and then quarantine for 14 days.

Currently, only 67 percent of the EU population is fully-vaccinated, with significant differences between member states and across age groups.

But the head of the European Medicine Agency, Emer Cooke, was quoted by the Financial Times arguing that current vaccines are less effective against Omicron.

EU leaders divided over Omicron travel rules

EU leaders failed to guarantee a coordinated approach to travel measures for the Christmas holiday season during their summit meeting. Instead they stressed that boosters shots are "crucial" and "urgent" to curb the new wave of Covid-19 infections.

EU agency: 'Omicron vaccine' approval to take 3-4 months

The EU drug regulator's chief said the bloc is ready to tackle mutations and allow for the fast-track approval of redesigned vaccines. The EU's disease agency said all known European Omicron cases were so far asymptomatic or had mild symptoms.

Omicron shows need for pandemic global pact, WHO says

The emergence of the new and more-contagious Omicron variant has revealed how "perilous and precarious" the Covid situation is and "why the world needs a new accord on pandemics," the chief of the World Health Organisation said.

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