As COVID-19 cases surge, European nations tighten restriction measures

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The surge in cases of coronavirus from the new Omicron variant is making European leaders take drastic restriction measures to slow the spread. This is coming as the variant is fast accounting for the major cause of COVID-19 cases in the region.

Social gatherings were only just returning to life in major European cities; however, many bars and major pubs have now been shut down.

Europe has recorded over 89 million cases and 1.5 million Covid-related deaths in total, according to the latest EU figures.

Earlier this week, Spain recorded its highest daily cases since the start of the pandemic from the variant.

The southwest European nation reported a record 49,823 new daily infections — surpassing the previous record of 44,357 reported in January at the height of the early surge.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has rallied for urgency by meeting regional leaders to discuss implementing new restrictions, BBC reported.

Neighbouring Portugal has also ordered bars and nightclubs to shut down from December 26 while also making working from home obligatory from that date until January 8, the BBC said. Outdoor gatherings will be limited to 10 people, the official statement said.

In France, authorities warned daily cases could soon pass 100,000.

The BBC quoted the country’s health minister, Olivier Véran, saying the increase in daily infections in the country, currently at about 70,000, would be driven by the Omicron variant. This he said was likely to become the dominant variant by early January.

The surge in cases across Europe will push health systems towards the brink of collapse, Hans Kluge, a top official at the World Health Organisation said.

He noted that “another storm was coming and governments should brace for significant increases in cases.”

France began vaccinating children between the ages of 5 and 11 Wednesday, but said in a statement booster shots were not currently being offered to 12 to 15-year-olds.

Germany also announced that from December 28, restrictions would return, and this would potentially ban private gatherings of 10 people and close nightclubs with football matches being played behind closed doors, according to the BBC.

“Coronavirus doesn’t take a Christmas break,” Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said on Tuesday.

“We cannot — and must not — close our eyes to this next wave, which is beginning to loom over us,” he added.

It is arguably the first litmus test on Mr Scholz’s ability to galvanise his country to tackle the pandemic after he took over from long-term leader Angela Merkel earlier this month.

In the UK, health secretary Sajid Javid announced that people infected with COVID-19 in England will be able to end quarantine after seven days as against 10 if they test negative on days six and seven, the BBC reported.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had ruled out any new restrictions for England before Christmas. Football authorities in the country recently also said they would not suspend the leagues just as some clubs were hit by the virus.

On their parts, neighbouring Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have announced restrictions on public gatherings.

After Finland saw a record high new infections, the Nordic nation ordered bars and restaurants to close at 22:00 hrs from December 24.

Fellow Scandinavian country Sweden has told bars, cafes and restaurants to serve only seated guests from Wednesday. Workers have also been advised to work from home if possible.

Swedish health minister, Lena Hallengren, said the country’s cases from Omicron could rise and warned that “the burden on the healthcare system is increasing.”

The Netherlands has tightened its restriction measures as it announced a strict lockdown on Monday.

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Omicron was first sequenced by South African scientists last month but has now spread around the globe.

It has been detected in at least 38 of the 53 countries in the WHO’s European region, including Russia and Turkey.

Data suggests Omicron may be more infectious, but it is unclear yet if it causes more severe illness.

“We can see another storm coming. Within weeks, Omicron will dominate in more countries of the region, pushing already stretched health systems further to the brink,” Reuters quoted Mr Kluge as saying.

“The sheer volume of new COVID-19 infections could lead to more hospitalisations and widespread disruption to health systems and other critical services.

“Governments and authorities need to prepare our response systems for a significant surge.”

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