21st Sep 2023

EU readies for 'big Omicron wave' amid record Covid cases

  • Several EU countries are considering shortening self-isolation periods amid concerns over potential staff shortages in critical sectors (Photo: European Parliament)
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New daily infections are breaking records in several European countries as the more transmissible Omicron variant continues to spread across the bloc.

France reported 332,252 new cases on Wednesday (5 January), but Paris was not alone in breaking records, since Portugal (39,570), Italy (189,109), Sweden (17,320), the Netherlands (24,000) and Croatia (8,587) all reported record highs too.

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In the UK, meanwhile, one in 15 people was infected with Covid-19 last week, increasing the burden on healthcare systems which have seen an increase in hospitalisations and shortages of staff calling in sick.

Overall, it is estimated that 3.75 million people have been infected in the UK — with prime minister Boris Johnson saying that the country is experiencing the fastest growth in infections ever.

European countries have reported rising numbers during the holiday season driven by the spread of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant, first identified in South Africa in November.

But an increasing number of studies suggest that it is milder than previous strains, the World Health Organization said this week while arguing that more research was needed.

The surge of infections has prompted several EU countries to consider further unpopular restrictions — especially targeting those who remain unvaccinated.

The French government has just approved a stricter 'vaccine pass' system, after a heated debate fuelled by comments of president Emmanuel Macron, who early this week said his strategy was to "piss off" the unvaccinated.

Under the new system, a negative Covid-19 test will no longer allow people to access public venues, such as cafes, restaurants, cinemas or even long-distance transport. Only people with proof of vaccination or recovery will have the pass.

A similar model was introduced by Germany and Austria, triggering violent protests against such measures.

Italy, for its part, announced on Wednesday its plans to make vaccination against Covid-19 mandatory for all those aged 50 and above from mid-June.

The government of Mario Draghi had already made vaccination compulsory in certain sectors, such as education and health care, and since October it introduced a requirement for all workers to prove that they have been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from Covid-19.

"[These] measures aim to keep our hospitals functioning well and at the same time keep open schools and business activities," Draghi told the cabinet, according to Reuters.

In the EU, compulsory vaccination has been a subject of intense debate during the last months.

Austria announced in November plans to make shots mandatory for all citizens from February, while Greece has imposed mandatory vaccination for the elderly from 16 January.

'Keep critical services working'

German health minister Karl Lauterbach, for his part, is pushing for further curbs on contact between people, although private gatherings are already limited to 10 people.

"I believe we have to talk again about limiting contacts before the big Omicron wave we are trying to avert or mitigate. I think that is necessary," he told a German broadcaster on Wednesday.

Additionally, several EU countries are considering shortening self-isolation periods amid concerns over potential staff shortages in critical sectors.

In Germany, the isolation period would be reduced from 14 to seven days for the general population, while doctors or electricity suppliers would only have to go into quarantine for five days.

People with no symptoms after 10 days will be able to leave their houses, without a test, under the draft plan which has yet to be approved.

"We are moving towards having a very secure solution but at the same time keeping the critical infrastructure working," Lauterbach said.

Similarly, the quarantine period for positive people in the Czech Republic has been shortened from seven to five days from 11 January.

WHO 'good news': more proof of milder Omicron symptoms

A World Health Organisation official said hospitalisations and death rates linked to the spread of Omicron tend to be lower than with previous strains. The more transmissible variant appears to affect mostly the upper respiratory tract, causing milder symptoms.

Christmas travel disrupted by Omicron variant

The spread of the more transmissible Omicron variant of coronavirus has triggered a flurry of flight cancellations, hampering Christmas plans for millions of people.

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.

Dutch mayors protest strict lockdown measures

Thirty Dutch mayors have asked the national government to rethink its corona pandemic measures amid protests from museums and cultural centres against continued lockdown.

WHO: Omicron to infect over half of Europeans in two months

The World Health Organization said Omicron is likely to infect more than half of the population in Europe within the next two months, threatening healthcare systems. It warned that it is too early to consider Covid as an endemic virus.

Record-breaking Omicron wave sweeps across Europe

The record numbers reflect those registered by health authorities, and does not include self-tests or infected people who develop no symptoms, and are not aware of their contagiousness.

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