LONDON – Nations across Europe are moving to impose tougher measures to curb a new wave of COVID-19 infections stimulated by the highly transmissible omicron variant, prompting calls for protests from Paris to Barcelona.
As the number of cases increased, the alarmed ministers of France, Cyprus and Austria tightened travel restrictions. Paris has canceled its New Year’s Eve fireworks. Denmark closed theaters, concert halls, amusement parks and museums. Ireland imposed a curfew at 8pm on pubs and bars and limited attendance at indoor and outdoor events.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has highlighted the official concern over escalating cases and their potential to overwhelm the healthcare system by declaring a major incident on Saturday, a move that will allow British capital councils to coordinate work more closely. with emergency services.
Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin captured the sense of the continent in an address to the nation, saying new restrictions were needed to protect the lives and livelihoods of the resurgent virus.
“None of that is easy,” Martin said Friday night. “We are all exhausted with the VOCID and the restrictions it requires. The twists and turns, the disappointments and the frustrations affect everyone. But it is the reality we are dealing with.”
The World Health Organization reported on Saturday that the omicron variant of coronavirus has been detected in 89 countries, and COVID-19 cases involving the variant are doubling every 1.5 or 3 days in places with transmission. community-acquired and not just foreign-acquired infections.
Key questions about omicron remain unanswered, including the effectiveness of existing COVID-19 vaccines and whether the variant causes serious illness in many infected people, the WHO noted.
However, omicron’s “substantial growth advantage” over the delta variant means that it is likely to soon surpass the delta as the dominant form of the virus in countries where the new variant is spreading locally, he said. UN health agency.
Dutch government ministers met on Saturday to discuss the advice of a group of experts who recommended extending an existing partial blockade, which officials said had led to a recent decline in infections.
Dutch Health Minister Hugo de Jonge did not say what measures the government could impose as it entered the meeting. “There are very serious concerns,” he told reporters in The Hague. “That’s why we’re meeting on Saturday to see what we can do.”
Fearing that it might be their last chance to shop before Christmas, shoppers gathered in the shopping areas of Dutch cities.
The municipality of Rotterdam tweeted that it was “too busy in the center” of the port city and told people, “Don’t come to the city.” Amsterdam also warned that the city’s main shopping street was busy and urged people to abide by the rules of the coronavirus.
In the UK, where confirmed daily cases have risen to a record high this week, the government has re-imposed the requirement to wear masks indoors and has ordered people to show vaccination tests or a recent test. of coronavirus negative when going to nightclubs and big events.
But the moves are causing anger.
Critics of the latest coronavirus restrictions by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson flooded Oxford Street, a popular shopping area of London, on Saturday. Protesters without masks whistled and shouted “Freedom!” and told passers-by to take off their masquerades.
Hundreds of people blocked traffic as they marched with slogans such as “Vaccine passports kill our freedoms” and “Don’t comply.” Other signs had the faces of Johnson or the UK Secretary of Health, Sajid Javid, and said, “Give them the boot.”
Scientists warn the British government that it must go further to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.
The leaked minutes of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies suggested a ban on indoor mixing and hospitality, the BBC reported.
Britain and other nations are also accelerating the pace of booster injections after initial data showed that two doses of vaccine were less effective against the omicron variant. Shopping malls, cathedrals and football stadiums in Britain have become mass vaccination centers.
During a visit on Saturday to an emerging mass vaccination clinic at Chelsea Stadium of the London football team, Khan said the operation of public services could be hampered by the rapidly spreading variant.
“The big problem we have is the number of Londoners who have this virus and this is leading to major problems in terms of staff absences and the ability of our utilities to function at optimal levels,” he told the BBC. “I am incredibly concerned about the absences of staff in the (National Health Service), the fire brigade, the police service, our councils across London.”
Omicron is now the dominant variant of coronavirus in London and efforts have been stepped up to reach people who have not yet been vaccinated or boosted.
“I want to make a direct call to the more than 1 million Londoners who have not yet been vaccinated against COVID-19; it is never too late to receive your first or second dose,” the mayor said. “It will help protect you, your loved ones and our NHS.”
In France, the government has announced that it will start giving the vaccine to children aged 5 to 11 from Wednesday. Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Friday that with the omicron variant spreading like “lightning”, the government proposed requiring a vaccination test for those entering restaurants, cafes and other public establishments. The pending measure requires parliamentary approval.
Demonstrations were planned in Paris to oppose the proposed vaccine approval and ongoing government restrictions.
Thousands of opponents of vaccine requirements and mask warrants protested in Hamburg, Berlin, Düsseldorf and other German cities on Saturday. In Austria, local media reported that crowds had risen to tens of thousands.
Courtney Bonnell in London; Emily Schultheis in Vienna; Mike Corder in Amsterdam; and Thomas Adamson in Paris, contributed to this report.