Omicron takes Europe by storm | The Economist

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THE HIGHLY The infectious variant of Omicron already accounts for the majority of covid-19 cases in London. It is now in full swing in mainland Europe, prompting governments there to rush into new rules. Germany is imposing a 14-day quarantine on all travelers arriving from Britain, starting December 20. France closed its borders to British tourists on December 18. Restrictions on international travel, however, will not be enough to contain the spread of the variant. On December 19, the Netherlands introduced a new strict lockdown, which will last until at least January 14. Stricter rules are also in prospect elsewhere.

The rush comes just as many European countries had started to turn their backs on a previous wave of infections caused by the Delta variant. A peak had been crossed in Germany and the Netherlands; the rate of increase in new cases in France had also started to slow. Omicron is turning these trends upside down. It takes over in Denmark. The variant is spreading throughout the rest of Europe at “lightning speed”, declared Jean Castex, the French Prime Minister, on December 17.e, with the number of new cases due to Omicron doubling every two to three days. Oliver Véran, the French Minister of Health, said the variant could constitute the majority of cases in France by Christmas.

Even though Omicron turns out to be less severe than Delta (which is still unclear), the magnitude of this oncoming wave means the number of severe cases may increase. Many frontline health workers may themselves be on sick leave due to infection, putting additional strain on hospitals. To save time and ease this pressure, European governments have two main weapons. One is to speed up the deployment of booster jabs, in order to increase protection. The other is to limit social interactions, in the hope of slowing down transmission.

Start with the boosters. The western periphery of the European Union in particular has made good progress in administering the first doses of covid-19 vaccines. Almost 89% of Portuguese, 83% of Spaniards, 80% of French and 79% of Italians have received at least one dose of the vaccine. This compares to 76% in Britain, 73% in Germany, 73% in America and even lower proportions in parts of central and eastern Europe. But booster shots appear to offer greater protection against Omicron, and severe cases in particular. Britain is leading the race: more than 40% of its population has had a recall, compared to 18% in America. The share is only 30% in Germany, 24% in France and 23% in Italy.

Europe is now rushing to speed up its deployment of boosters. French President Emmanuel Macron opened boosters to everyone over 18 at the end of November. He also warned those over 65 that the French covid pass, a digital certificate required for entry to restaurants, bars and other indoor locations, would expire in mid-December, unless the wearer received a reminder. The guns are now being pitted at a decent rate. Karl Lauterbach, Germany’s new Minister of Health, announced that boosters of 1.5 million were administered one day last week. France set a new record on December 16, with nearly 900,000 in a single day.

But the European Health Agency warned on December 15 that even with faster deployment of boosters, health systems could struggle to cope unless rules on social contact are “further tightened without delay. “. This is why European countries are turning to their second weapon, tighter restrictions on travel and other activities.

The Dutch have imposed the toughest new rules on their own citizens to date. All bars, restaurants, cinemas, non-essential stores and indoor sports centers have now been closed for a month. Sporting events will take place in empty stadiums. Families will only be allowed to invite four people aged 13 and over to their home for Christmas. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he had no choice as the variant was spreading “even faster” than expected.

The Dutch have imposed the toughest new rules on their own citizens to date. All bars, restaurants, cinemas, non-essential stores and indoor sports centers have now been closed for a month. Sporting events will take place in empty stadiums. Families will only be allowed to invite four people aged 13 and over to their home for Christmas. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he had no choice as the variant was spreading “even faster” than expected.

For now, France has imposed no containment or curfew. But Mr Castex said on December 17 that he plans to turn the country’s covid pass into a good vaccine. Currently, a negative covid-19 test can also be used to access restaurants and other public places. A new law, due to be submitted to parliament in January, would limit entry to those who have been loaded. When Mr Macron tightened the rules governing the covid pass in July and said vaccination would be mandatory for healthcare workers from September, it acted as a big push to get vaccinated. The government hopes that the new rule, if passed, will have a similar effect. Italy has already imposed a similar rule. Austria has gone even further: vaccination will become compulsory there in February, with a heavy fine for those who refuse. Germany is considering a similar approach.

The timing of the Omicron wave is particularly troublesome in France, for two reasons. One is economical: Hotel and restaurant businesses in the Alps, which rely heavily on British tourists on Christmas and New Years, have warned of a catastrophic start to the season due to border restrictions. But the biggest problem is political. France holds a presidential election in April and January is traditionally the start of the electoral campaign. Mr Macron, who is expected to run for office, is in no mood to impose new lockdown or close schools. The French were subjected to a nighttime curfew for months last winter, and memories of the tension from that time linger.

The arrival of Omicron could mean that the national political conversation will change. So far, under pressure from populist-nationalists, immigration and identity policies have dominated the debate. These could now be overshadowed again by public health. This could be to Mr Macron’s advantage, as voters seek solace and continuity. But no one, including the president, will appreciate the idea of ​​campaigning as the national mood darkens.

All of our stories relating to the pandemic can be found on our coronavirus hub. You can also find trackers showing the global vaccine rollout, excess deaths by country, and the spread of the virus across Europe.


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