Covid-19: Cases increase in UK as France restricts travel, other countries grapple with Omicron response
Spiraling infections in Britain driven in part by the novel omicron variant of the coronavirus rocked many in Europe on Thursday (local time), fueling familiar fears that tighter restrictions would again undermine holiday plans this year.
Much remains unknown about omicron, but more and more officials are warning that at the very least, it appears to be more transmissible than the delta variant, which was already putting pressure on US hospitals in the Netherlands. With so many questions unanswered, uncertainty reigned over how quickly and severely to crack down on year-end travel and Christmas celebrations.
After the UK recorded the highest number of new confirmed Covid-19 infections on Thursday (local time) since the start of the pandemic – more than 88,000, breaking the all-time record set just a day earlier – France announced Thursday that it would tighten entry rules for those coming from Britain.
In England, the chief medical officer urged people to limit who they see during the holiday season – although there has been a lot of debate over how much should be waived. In the United States, meanwhile, the White House has insisted a lockdown was not necessary, despite signs that Omicron was gaining ground there.
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Globally, more than 75 countries have reported confirmed cases of the new variant. In Britain, where omicron cases double every two or three days, the variant is expected to replace delta as the dominant strain in the country soon. Authorities in the 27-country European Union say omicron will be the dominant variant of the bloc by mid-January.
Along with hints that it’s more contagious, early data suggests that omicron may be milder but better at evading vaccines, making booster shots more crucial. Experts urged caution, especially when drawing conclusions about its lightness, as hospitalizations lag behind infections and many variables contribute to how sick people fall.
Additionally, although Omicron is found to be softer overall than Delta, it can disarm some of the available rescue tools and put immunosuppressed people and the elderly at particular risk. And if it’s more transmissible, more infections overall increase the risk of more serious ones.
As experts collect more data, some governments have rushed to act, while others have sought to allay fears that the new variant will bring countries back to square one.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted on Thursday that the situation in the UK is different from last year due to the widespread use of vaccines and the possibility of testing.
While Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, advised people to limit their social contact, prioritizing those who are most important, Johnson struck a less harsh note.
Johnson said that if people want to attend an event, “the smart thing to do is take a test and make sure you are careful.”
âBut we’re not saying we want to undo things, we’re not locking things out, and the quickest path to normalcy is to be boosted,â he said.
Nonetheless, Queen Elizabeth II opted to cancel her traditional family lunch before Christmas as cases skyrocketed.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, has been partially stranded since November to curb an increase due to the delta and while the number of infections is now declining, the government this week ordered elementary schools to close for Christmas a week earlier, fearing that Omicron could fuel a further increase. Authorities have also stepped up a vaccination booster campaign as Acting Prime Minister Mark Rutte cited Britain as an example of how quickly the variant can spread.
EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday for a summit sought to balance the fight against the wave of infections across the continent while keeping borders open with common policies across the bloc.
“Let us try to maintain the European solution,” said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. âIf each country goes it alone again, we will be even further from home. “
But before the meeting, European nations were already taking action to curb the spread of the virus. Greece and Italy tightened entry requirements for travelers earlier this week, and Portugal decided to maintain tighter border controls beyond the scheduled end of January 9.
France on Thursday said it would impose restrictions on travelers from the UK – which is no longer part of the EU – by limiting reasons to travel and requiring 48-hour isolation on arrival. The new measures will come into force on Saturday.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex said the measures are being imposed “in the face of the extremely rapid spread of the omicron variant in the UK”.
The brutal move comes after weeks of political tension between France and Britain over fishing rights and how to handle migration in dangerous small boats across the Channel.
It also comes as the French government desperately tries to avoid a new lockdown or tougher measures that would hurt the economy and darken President Emmanuel Macron’s expected campaign for the April presidential elections.
Britain has said it does not plan for reciprocal measures. Prime Minister’s spokesman Max Blain said the travel bans “would be neither effective nor proportionate”.
Fearing a string of canceled holidays and a general decline in business at the height of the crucial and lucrative Christmas season, UK restaurants and pubs turned to the government for help on Thursday. They said concerns over the new variant had already wiped out Â£ 2 billion in sales in the past 10 days.
Across London, restaurants that would normally see bustling crowds toasting and enjoying festive meals were reporting many cancellations and empty rooms.
âIt’s a complete nightmareâ¦. This week should be the busiest week of the year for hospitality, âsaid Sally AbÃ©, chef at the Conrad Hotel in central London. “It’s everywhere, everyone is canceling, but there is no government support.”
She said the hotel lost all private dining room rentals for the Christmas period.
The Music Venue Trust said a catastrophic drop in attendance and advance ticket sales had hit the industry since the government announced tighter restrictions last Wednesday, “putting the entire industry on high alert red for the risk of permanent closures “.