Europe is fighting record cases of Covid-19, considering reopening

Europe has ringed in the new year moderately as several countries have reported record-breaking Covid-19 infections and governments reflect on how to contain the virus when workers return to offices and children return to home ‘school.

Fireworks and large public gatherings have been removed or reduced for New Years Eve across the continent despite early data suggesting the Omicron variant produces a milder form of the disease than its predecessors. Hospitals are bracing for an influx of patients due to increased social contact during the holiday season and the strain’s high transmissibility.

“We all know the coming weeks will be tough,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in his New Year’s address, as the country reported more than 232,000 new coronavirus infections, a pandemic record.

He said he hoped France’s relatively high vaccination rates would allow the country to avoid the tighter restrictions that have been imposed in other parts of Europe.

While many cities, including Paris, have canceled fireworks, bars and restaurants have remained open. And although hospital admissions are increasing faster than before, the number of more serious intensive care unit admissions remains relatively stable week over week. “I want to believe, with you, that 2022 could be the year we leave this epidemic behind us,” Macron said.

The cautious optimism was buttressed by signals from South Africa, where Omicron was first detected in November, that the variant has now reached its peak. Data from the UK indicated that the disease caused by Omicron is less severe than that of the Delta strain, which until recently was the most prevalent.

“We all know that the coming weeks will be difficult,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a speech, broadcast Friday in a retirement home in France.


Jean-François Monier / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Scientists have warned, however, that the impact of the variant in Europe may differ from that in South Africa, which has a young population and likely some degree of immunity to serious disease due to high levels of infection. earlier. It’s summer in the southern hemisphere too, and the virus often tends to spread more easily in the winter, when people congregate indoors.

Although in retreat in some countries north of the Alps such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, the new variant now has Southern Europe firmly under its control, with Italy and Spain recording their greater number of daily infections of the pandemic. The countries of the South had hoped that relatively high vaccination rates and a milder winter would avoid the worst of the new variant.

New confirmed Covid-19 infections in Italy hit a pandemic record of more than 144,000 on Friday. In Spain, confirmed cases topped 100,000 per day by the end of the year. Cases in Portugal and Greece have increased rapidly.

Hospital admissions in Italy have increased, but, like in other European countries, the pressure on health systems remains significantly lower than a year ago, a sign of the continued effectiveness of mass vaccinations .

Despite this, the UK, which has led one of the fastest recall campaigns, is setting up temporary units to increase hospital capacity in anticipation of a possible surge in patient numbers after Christmas and New Years. .

Covid-19 tests at a party in Italy, where the government is considering tougher workplace rules.


Luciano Del Castillo / Zuma Press

At the same time, European authorities are gearing up for schools to reopen this month, with most governments looking for ways to keep students in class despite rising infections.

Neighboring German and Austrian authorities have been criticized by experts and parents for shutdowns during the early stages of the pandemic.

The UK government has said keeping children in class is a priority and anticipates schools will reopen normally this month. English secondary school students will be required to take a test upon their return and then test themselves twice a week. The education secretary appealed to former teachers to come forward to work in schools hit hard by staff illnesses.

Despite these measures, schools are asked to plan for the worst.

“I ask you to review your existing contingency plans to ensure that you are well prepared to implement them in the event of future changes,” Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi recently wrote to schools. Some school children have taken laptops home at the start of the holidays in case their schools are closed when they return and distance education has to resume.

Schools in France are expected to reopen as scheduled on Monday after the holidays, although trips to indoor venues such as theaters are delayed. Children will need to stay home when teachers are away and cannot be replaced, rather than sit in other classes, the education ministry said.

New Year’s Eve in Puerta del Sol square in Madrid, which has faced an increase in cases.


Javier Barbancho / Reuters

The French Parliament is debating a new emergency law that will transform France’s health pass into a vaccine pass, meaning that a recent negative Covid-19 test would no longer be sufficient to access places such as restaurants, cinemas, long distance transportation and some major shopping centers.

The Italian government is expected to decide soon whether to tighten the rules for workplace health certificates, requiring all workers to present proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19 to enter offices, stores and the factories. So far a negative test has sufficed.

The approach is similar to that of Germany and Austria, which have reduced recent outbreaks of Covid-19 by tightening social distancing restrictions, especially for unvaccinated people. The approach has proved politically divisive in Italy, however, with dissenting politicians reluctant to push people too far towards compulsory de facto vaccination.

Elsewhere, new infections in Saudi Arabia have increased 34-fold in the past month, with 819 cases reported on Friday, the highest level since the summer.

Authorities this week reinstated a mask warrant in public places, including outdoor events in the midst of a week-long festival in the capital, Riyadh. They also reinstated social distancing measures in the major mosques in Mecca and Medina, where millions of Muslims make pilgrimages every year.

Write to Isabel Coles at [email protected], Sam Schechner at [email protected] and Marcus Walker at [email protected]

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