Omicron response divides Europe as number of cases rises

PARIS – The Dutch can now only invite two guests to their home as part of a new confinement. In Denmark, where masks and other social restrictions had all but disappeared thanks to a successful vaccination campaign, cinemas, amusement parks, zoos and other establishments are again closed.

In contrast, France has ruled out blockades, curfews or closures on a continent where new Covid-19 rules are announced every day in the face of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. “The French exception,” said the front page of a newspaper, Le Parisien, on Monday.

For now, France – along with Spain and, to a lesser extent, Italy – are betting that high immunization and booster coverage, along with previous restrictions it has put in place, will be enough to keep the coronavirus variant manageable, by adopting a timeout. and seeing the attitude as a sense of urgency grips the Netherlands, Denmark and Britain.

The numbers show why.

In London, the number of Covid cases rose 30% last week, and the mayor declared a “major incident” – a state of emergency that frees up resources. Denmark now has more than 9,000 new cases per day, one of the highest infection rates in the world. And the Netherlands became the first country in Europe to return to full lockdown, fearing its relatively low number of intensive care beds could be exceeded.

Spain, Italy and France all have fewer Covid cases per 100,000 people than some of their northern neighbors, at least for now.

Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health in Geneva, said northern European countries “tend to be more proactive, to act quickly by not wanting their hospitals to be overwhelmed.” For southern countries, he said, restrictions and blockages are “always an act of last resort”.

In all countries, economic and political concerns – just days before Christmas – are also guiding governments, amid uncertainty over the extent of risk posed by the variant. Epidemiologists have warned that even if Omicron is ultimately shown to cause less severe disease, its rapid spread could still send large numbers of people to hospitals.

The warnings bring back some of the more uncertain times at the start of the pandemic, with an increase in the number of cases leaving European countries with the prospect of a second consecutive Christmas clouded by lockdown-like measures, travel bans and fears of rationed health care.

Governments are ramping up booster injections as scientific evidence accumulates that two doses of the vaccine are not enough to stop the infection, although the vaccines appear to reduce the risk of hospitalization and serious illness. The United States is keeping a close watch on Britain and Denmark for clues as to what may be going on at home, as both countries are good at tracking variants.

In France, the government has said Omicron has now caused hundreds of cases and will be the dominant variant by early next month. An average of 52,471 cases of coronavirus per day were reported in France last week, according to a New York Times database, up 23% from the average two weeks ago.

The government of President Emmanuel Macron has encouraged vaccinations by issuing health cards to those vaccinated and has succeeded in keeping schools and most establishments open. More than 70 percent of the French population has received two doses, although some six million have not yet received a single injection.

Further restrictions would erode this success just four months before the presidential elections.

The government is focused on tightening restrictions on unvaccinated people in the new year by making France’s health pass conditional on vaccination. Currently, people can also get a pass with a recent negative Covid test.

The government has also shortened the wait before people can receive a booster to four months, instead of five. So far, around 17.5 million people have received boosters, or about 36% of the population who had received two doses.

“It’s boring, but this year there’s at least more Christmas spirit than last year, when we had a curfew,” said Sherryline Ramos, a communications student who was walking with a friend along the Champs-Élysées in Paris. “We couldn’t go out and enjoy the Christmas decorations. “

In Spain, there has also been little appetite to revert to restrictions that have become common in previous waves of the virus. Such a decision, before the Christmas holidays, is viewed both politically and economically as treacherous.

Authorities raised the country’s alert level last week and are now reporting 50 infections per 100,000 population, the highest rate in months. But on Monday, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez signaled a wait-and-see approach, noting hospitalizations remained lower than elsewhere in Europe and vaccines appeared to be doing their job.

“With significantly higher contagion figures, we have fewer hospitalizations and intensive care than a year ago,” he said. “The first conclusion is that vaccination works and that this health crisis can only be stopped by science. “

Medical experts agree that Spain’s high vaccination rates set it apart from other European countries. More than 80 percent of the country is fully immunized.

But some members of the public health community have expressed reservations about the government’s current approach. Rafael Vilasanjuan, policy director of ISGlobal, a public health think tank in Barcelona, ​​said as northern European countries scramble to slow the variant, Spain could waste precious time to get ahead of it.

“We are not in a situation where we can think the vaccine is enough,” he said. “We can potentially be in the same situation as others with hospitalizations.”

Vilasanjuan said the country should consider a number of measures other countries have taken, including establishing a national vaccine passport and more forcefully urging citizens to avoid large meetings, even during the holidays. He noted that while Omicron’s numbers had yet to reach levels seen in some other countries, they had increased in cities like Barcelona, ​​where they now account for nearly a third of PCR tests in some hospitals.

José Martínez Olmos, a former Spanish health official who now works as a professor at the Andalusian School of Public Health in Granada, said voluntary measures may not be enough in the long term. He said the government may soon have to impose new restrictions on public activities, such as limiting the capacity of restaurants, hotels and theaters, and reducing their opening hours.

And, as difficult as it may be to enforce in Spain, the government must encourage limits on Christmas activities, Olmos said. “They should recommend that people who go to Christmas dinners try to be indoors as little as possible, as social interactions are the main risk,” he said.

In Italy, the government is considering imposing further measures amid concerns over Omicron, but Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Monday that no final decision had been taken.

The government has made the vaccination campaign a national priority.

In October, Italy became the first major European country to demand a “Green Pass” for all workers. Since then, he has steadily tightened restrictions on unvaccinated people. As of last week, people traveling to Italy from other European countries must show recent negative rapid tests and proof of vaccination or recovery, otherwise they may be quarantined.

The rapid spread of Omicron – particularly in Britain and Denmark, two countries with high vaccination rates – has alarmed many experts.

Denmark lifted all social restrictions in early September after a successful vaccination campaign. But last week, in addition to shutting down scores of public places, the government banned alcohol service from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. and required a valid vaccination passport to travel on inter-city buses and trains.

In the Netherlands, concerns about Omicron’s effects on the healthcare system prompted the government over the weekend to order all but essential businesses to close until the second week of January. The number of guests allowed to enter the houses was limited to two, although four are allowed on Christmas and New Years.

Michel de Blaeij, 33, who lives in Terneuzen, a town in the south of the Netherlands, said he supported the measures, but criticized what he sees as the government’s lack of clarity and consistency. The government’s decision to send schoolchildren home for the Christmas holidays a week earlier had left many parents scrambling, he said.

“You just don’t know where you are at,” he said, adding, “The general mood is frustration right now.”

Norimitsu Onishi reported from Paris and Nick Casey from Madrid. Reporting was provided by Claire Moses and Shashank Bengali from London, Jasmina Nielsen from Copenhagen, José Bautista from Madrid, Elisabetta povoledo from Rome, and Léontine Gallois, Constant Méheut and Aurélien Breeden from Paris.

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