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Monday, January 24, 2022

COVID in Europe: governments urge for restraint during the festive season

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Europe is once again seeing a surge of COVID-19 cases — here is our summary of the measures being taken across the continent.

In some parts, the increase has been compounded by the emergence of the new Omicron variant, first detected in South Africa.

Some countries have taken steps targeting the unvaccinated, while programmes are also being rolled out in several nations to vaccinate young children.

Italy

Italy further tightened its restrictions on Thursday (23 December), barring unvaccinated from public spaces and enforcing mask-wearing outdoors.

Outdoor New Year’s Eve celebrations have been banned, and nightclubs will be closed until 31 January.

A daily record of nearly 44,600 new cases was reached in the last 24 hours on Thursday, as well as 168 deaths.

The country already requires unvaccinated EU citizens to quarantine for five days if entering the country, while vaccinated visitors from EU countries must get a negative test within 24 hours of arrival.

The Italian government on 6 December imposed new rules on those who are not vaccinated with the issuing of a “super” health pass.

Only people with proof of vaccination or of having recovered from COVID-19 can eat at indoor restaurants, go to the movies or attend sporting events. It has now extended the vaccine mandate to school personnel, law enforcement, the military, and anyone working in a health care setting.

France

Prime minister Jean Castex announced on Monday (27 December), that the period between vaccine jabs has been reduced to three months for the booster shot.

Gatherings have also been limited to 2,000 people indoors and 5,000 outdoors, Castex said at a press conference following a government meeting to discuss further measures, as the country experiences record numbers of positive cases and hospitalisations.

Cafes and bars are allowed to serve seated customers only for three weeks starting with 3 January.

“We are prohibiting standing concerts, and the consumption of food and drinks will be prohibited in all cinemas, theatres, sports facilities, and public transportation, including long-distance trips,” the French PM explained.

The measures also include a reintroduction of teleworking “whenever possible,” with a minimum of three days a week, Castex stated.

On 25 December, the health authorities stated that the daily number of cases has surpassed 100,000 (104,611 is the exact count) — a key milestone for the country as Omicron spreads across the country.

The previous absolute record of 86,852 cases reached back in early November 2020, at the peak of the second epidemic wave, was previously surpassed on 23 December, with 91,608 cases recorded.

The numbers have made the French government reconsider its plans for the COVID pass, which could possibly limit access for those unvaccinated regardless of whether they had a negative test or not.

Prime Minister Jean Castex said earlier in December that in the new year the “health pass” will turn into a “vaccine pass” with more restrictions on people who are unvaccinated.

The lawmakers are expected to vote on it in the new year.

On Wednesday (22 December) the government approved COVID-19 jabs for children five to 11 years old.

Vaccinations for children who are at risk for severe COVID-19 began last week.

The health ministry has for now ruled out offering booster doses to teenagers, for whom vaccination started in mid-June.

It comes as the government urged people to get tested and keep holiday gatherings small amid high infections due to COVID-19.

In Paris, the mayor’s office announced on Saturday (18 December) that the fireworks and concerts planned on the famous avenue des Champs-Elysées for New Year’s Eve have been cancelled.

France already closed nightclubs from Friday (10 December) for four weeks in an effort to curb rapidly rising COVID-19 infections.

From 15 January, all adults will need a booster jab at least seven months after being fully vaccinated in order to keep their health passes. From mid-December, people over the age of 65 will need one to have their health passes extended.

And from 30 January, all caregivers and firefighters in France will have to receive a third dose.

Statistics on the percentage of those vaccinated in the country vary greatly, with between 72.9 (according to University of Oxford’s Our World in Data) and 90.2 per cent (according to Reuters) of France’s 67.4 million people receiving both jabs.

Spain

Spain will make mask-wearing outdoors mandatory once again, with the prime minister set to pass a law by decree.

The country reported record-high COVID-19 infections as the Omicron variant takes hold.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez also offered to deploy the armed forces to help regions step up vaccinations. Sánchez said he is targeting 80 per cent of the 60-69 age group to have received booster shots by the end of next week, among other goals.

COVID-19 tests for professional use will temporarily be placed on sale at pharmacies, amid a reported shortage of tests as well.

Authorities in Catalonia, one of the country’s most populous regions, announced on Monday they were bringing back restrictions which include a 1 am curfew, the closure of nightlife, and capacity limits. The measures will come into force on Thursday evening following approval from the High Court of Justice of Catalonia. They will last for an initial period of 15 days.

It will affect all towns of more than 10,000 inhabitants where the incidence exceeds 250 cases per 100,000 population over a seven-day period, which currently is all of them.

Several regions have also introduced stricter measures for the unvaccinated ahead of the Christmas season, extending the use of the COVID-19 certificate to enter public places such as bars and restaurants. Many have protested the newly imposed health passes.

More than 80 per cent of the Spanish population is already immunised, but fears of the Omicron variant have triggered a vaccination drive.

United Kingdom

The British government has so far resisted imposing new restrictions ahead of the holidays even as it continues to battle a major rise in COVID-19 cases, driven by the more transmissible Omicron variant.

On Monday (27 December), health secretary Sajid Javid said that there will be no further restrictions in England in 2021. Javid asked the people to “remain cautious” and refrain from public New Year’s celebrations.

“When we get into the new year, of course we will see then whether we do need to take any further measures, but nothing more until then at least,” he said.

In the meantime, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have all introduced further restrictions on leisure activities and going out to pubs and cafes.

This includes an extension of the social distancing rules and further limits on the size of gatherings.

On Thursday (23 December) the country registered a record 106,122 cases, with more than 100,000 cases also reported the day before.

On Christmas Day, thousands were reported seen in lines to take the booster jab, as the number of daily new cases remained above the 100,000-mark, making it three days in a row.

London mayor Sadiq Khan announced on Monday that traditional New Year’s Eve festivities in Britain’s capital were cancelled.

Over the weekend Khan declared a “major incident” after a “huge surge” of Omicron cases in the city. Major incident acts as a warning that hospitals and emergency services are unable to respond as they normally would due to extenuating circumstances.

In England, the chief medical officer urged people to limit who they see in the festive period.

People now need certificates to get into nightclubs and sports stadiums, to prove they have been fully vaccinated or have had a recent negative test. Similar schemes are also in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Health Minister Sajid Javid announced on Wednesday (22 December) that the mandatory self-isolation period for people who test positive has been cut from ten days to seven days, provided they have two negative lateral flow tests on days 6 and 7. He said the move was “to minimise the disruption COVID has on people’s lives”.

Belgium

Protesters gathered on Sunday (26 December) after Belgium introduced new restrictions, closing down cinemas, theatres, and other indoor recreational activities as Omicron spreads.

The 5,000-strong crowd of mostly cultural workers claimed the government disregarded their precarious position. The demonstrations were peaceful throughout.

Museums, libraries, and fitness centres are, however, allowed to stay open. The Belgian government is also urging people to get tested ahead of the holidays.

Infections have been decreasing recently but the new variant already represents 27 per cent of the new cases in the country, authorities said on 19 December.

Greece

Christmas concerts and other events have been cancelled in Greece under new restrictions announced Thursday that include a general mask mandate for outdoors and all public areas.

Incoming travellers will also be required to have follow-up tests for COVID-19 on the second and fourth days after their arrival.

The restrictions will take effect Friday as the country braces for the expected impact of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, with the public health service already under pressure and intensive care space at more than 90 per cent capacity.

“Due to the large amount of Christmas activity and crowded conditions that it creates, the mandatory use of masks is fully justified,” Health Minister Thanos Plevris said during a live-streamed presentation of the measures, which will remain in effect at least through 3 January.

Other measures that will be implemented starting 3 January include the mandatory use of high-protection or double masks imposed at supermarkets and on public transport.

Entertainment venues will close at midnight, capacity will be cut to 10 per cent at soccer stadiums, remote work and schedule changes will be expanded in the public sector and nursing home visits will only be permitted for people carrying a negative PCR test result, Plevris announced on Monday (27 December)

Based on vaccine appointment data, Plevris said the adult vaccination coverage would soon rise to 80 per cent. Nearly 30 per cent of Greece’s population has already received a booster shot.

“The Omicron variant is now apparent across the country, especially in greater Athens where there has been a considerable rise in cases,” Plevris said.

Meanwhile, he confirmed there will be no further restrictions this year.

Earlier in December, Greek authorities approved vaccinating children aged 5 to 11 amid a surge in infections.

The explosion in cases also prompted Greek lawmakers to approve mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for people over 60 in response to a surge in cases.

If they do not get the vaccine by 16 January, they risk being fined €100 for every month they remain unvaccinated.

Germany

Germany will limit private gatherings to ten people and close nightclubs ahead of the new year as the country faces a “massive fifth wave” of COVID-19 due to Omicron.

Large events such as football matches will be held without an audience as part of new restrictions that will come into effect on 28 December.

Restrictions already in place target mainly the unvaccinated, with proof of vaccination or recovery required to enter nonessential stores among other things. As of Sunday, UK tourists are banned from Germany.

The country’s national disease control centre, the Robert Koch Institute, added the UK to its list of “virus variant areas”. This means anyone travelling from the UK to Germany must present a negative PCR test no older than 48 hours and enter a mandatory quarantine for 14 days, regardless of their vaccination status.

The UK joins eight African countries, including South Africa, on Germany’s list of “virus variant areas”.

Germany also considers France and Denmark “high-risk areas,” meaning those who are not vaccinated or recovered from the virus must quarantine for ten days after entering the country. Dozens of countries, including nearly all of Germany’s direct neighbours, have now been added to this category.

Germany’s parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a vaccine mandate for hospital and care workers as the country tries to stem a wave of coronavirus infections.

Portugal

Portugal announced new restrictions over Christmas and the New Year. Working from home will become mandatory and bars and nightclubs will be shut from Saturday.

People will need to test negative for the virus to access cinemas, theatres, sports events, weddings and baptisms until at least 9 January. On Christmas and New Year’s, people will need a negative test result to access restaurants and public celebrations.

On New Year’s Eve, no more than ten people can gather in the street, and drinking alcohol outdoors will be prohibited.

This comes despite Portugal’s high vaccination rate with around 86 per cent of its population fully vaccinated against the virus.

Portugal reintroduced tighter pandemic restrictions on 1 December to contain a new surge in infections. Face masks once again became mandatory and the country tightened control of its borders.

A digital certificate proving vaccination or recovery from COVID-19 is required to access restaurants, cinemas and hotels.

On 25 December, the Portuguese Directorate-General of Health declared that Omicron became the most dominant strain, found in two-thirds of all COVID-19 cases in the country.

Netherlands

The Netherlands is back to a nationwide lockdown since Sunday (19 December) to curb the Omicron variant, caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte said after a meeting with his government to discuss new restrictions.

He added that the move was “unavoidable because of the fifth wave caused by the Omicron variant that is bearing down on us”.

Young children registered the steepest rises in infections in a recent coronavirus surge in the Netherlands.

Lockdown measures were introduced last month. Bars, restaurants, and other public meeting places such as theatres and cinemas have been shutting their doors at 5 pm since 28 November and will now have to continue through the holiday season.

Amateurs sporting events are also not permitted between 5 pm and 5 am with professional sports events allowed to proceed but with no spectators.

Denmark

All foreigners and non-residents entering Denmark from 27 December will need a negative COVID test even if they are vaccinated, the health ministry has announced. The measure will take effect from 27 December until at least 17 January 2022.

Denmark has closed theatres, cinemas, concert halls, amusement parks, museums, and art galleries amid a record surge in COVID-19 infections driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Stores and restaurants must limit their number of customers, and restaurants have to close by 11 pm.

On Monday (27 December) Denmark has recorded the highest number of daily coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic with 16,164 new infection cases in the past 24 hours.

The figure released by Danish health authorities broke the previous daily record set in the Scandinavian country only on Sunday when 14,844 new infections were documented.

Seven people infected with COVID-19 died in the past 24 hours. That put the total death toll in Denmark at 3,217, officials said.

The number of coronavirus infections in Denmark started to rise sharply in early December but by last week the pace seemed to have leveled off. But health officials said the number of infections started rising dramatically again over the past few days.

The government earlier recommended that people work from home, banned concerts with more than 50 people standing, and ordered people to wear face masks in places serving food when not seated.

Omicron is now the dominant variant in Denmark, authorities confirmed.

Sweden

Sweden announced new measures on Tuesday (21 December) including expanded use of vaccine passes.

From 23 December, people are urged to work from home, public events with between 20 and 500 attendants would need to have the audience seated and events with a larger audience will need to require proof of vaccinations.

“We now need to take joint responsibility and adapt to the reality at hand,” prime minister Magdalena Andersson told a press conference.

In addition, measures to avoid crowding in shopping centres and bars and restaurants are only allowed to offer seated service with patrons sitting at least a metre apart.

Noting that Sweden still was seeing relatively low levels of COVID-19, director of the country’s Public Health Agency, Karin Tegmark Wisell, said that the strain on Sweden’s healthcare had increased as a result of coronavirus coupled with other viruses and the seasonal flu.

Nearly 1.5 million Swedes are still not vaccinated.

Ireland

Ireland issued an 8 pm curfew on pubs and restaurants in order to curb rising COVID-19 cases from Sunday (19 December). Indoor events will also be restricted with limits on the capacity for all events.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said Omicron was going to cause a “massive rise in infections” with more than a third of the country’s new cases due to the new variant.

The new measures will last until at least 30 January.

The country already tightened restrictions from 7 December, with nightclubs closing, and social distancing re-established in pubs, restaurants, and hotels.

Capacity in indoor and sports venues, where masks are already compulsory, was limited to 50 per cent. A health pass is already required for entry to leisure venues.

Switzerland

Switzerland is restricting public life for those who are unvaccinated.

Only people who are vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 will be able to access restaurants, cultural venues, or other indoor events. Private family gatherings should be limited to ten people.

Swiss voters approved by a clear margin the so-called ‘COVID-19 law’ in a referendum on 28 November.

The legislation, which is already in force, includes a pandemic recovery package and the application of a controversial COVID certificate.

Austria

Austria lifted its lockdown on Sunday (12 December) for people with a “2G” pass, meaning they were vaccinated against COVID-19 or recently recovered from the illness.

People without the certificate are only allowed to leave their homes to go to work or for other essential purposes.

There is an 11 pm curfew for restaurants and an FFP2 mask is required on public transport and in indoor spaces.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Vienna over the weekend to protest against mandatory vaccination and other virus measures.

The government, frustrated at the country’s relatively low vaccine uptake, plans to make COVID vaccinations compulsory for all adults, taking effect from February.

Cyprus

Cyprus on Saturday (18 December) toughened COVID-19 screening for all travellers from the UK over age 12, including requiring them to quarantine until results are in from a lab test performed at the airport.

Cyprus’ Health Ministry cited Britain’s “drastic increase” in omicron variant cases as the reason for the stepped-up measures, which apply to travellers regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19.

Arriving passengers who test positive must remain in isolation until officials contact them with further instructions, while those who test negative will be given five rapid test kits that they must use during their stays on the Mediterranean island.

The island has been experiencing an increase in infections as well, with the seven-day average of almost 600 cases still somewhat below the peak 1,009 cases per week Cyprus saw in July 2021.

Russia

Russian authorities on Monday (13 December) backed away from introducing some of the restrictions for the unvaccinated that were announced a month earlier and elicited public outrage all across the vast country where vaccine uptake remains low.

The speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s lower parliament house, announced the withdrawal of a bill restricting access to domestic and international flights and trains to those who do not present a health pass attesting they have been fully vaccinated, have recently recovered from COVID-19, or are medically exempt from vaccination.

Less than 50 per cent of Russia’s 146-million population has been fully vaccinated so far, even though Russia was among the first in the world to approve and roll out a COVID-19 vaccine a year ago.

Norway

A ten-person limit for gatherings at private homes has come into effect to counter an increase in COVID-19 cases.

This is part of new measures announced earlier in the week by the government, which also include the reintroduction of social distancing in restaurants. Attendance at public events without assigned seating is capped at 50, while people are being urged to work from home.

The new measures are set to last four weeks although the number of people allowed at gatherings in private homes will be increased to 20 on Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

“We consider the situation as being serious. Both Delta and Omicron infections are increasing in Norway. The number of people who are admitted to hospitals and intensive care units is increasing,” Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said.

The authorities recommend the use of face masks on public transportation and in shops and shopping malls.

Anyone entering Norway must be tested within 24 hours, either at the border, at a public test station or by self-test. If a rapid test comes back positive, a traveller must take a PCR test within 24 hours.

Poland

Poland will make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for health workers, teachers, police, military, and firefighters.

Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said on Tuesday that after 1 March, vaccination will be a condition for performing jobs in these sectors.

Nightclubs will close and restaurants and theatres will operate at reduced capacity from 15 December amid rising infections. Public transport is being limited to 75 per cent of capacity.

Czech Republic

Several thousand people marched through the Czech capital on Sunday (12 December), protesting a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for certain groups including people age 60 and over.

A 30-day state of emergency came into effect on Friday (26 November) as the Czech Republic reported record-high COVID-19 cases.

As part of the government’s anti-COVID measures, all Christmas markets across the country are banned and people will not be allowed to drink alcohol in public places, health minister Adam Vojtech said. Bars, restaurants, nightclubs, nightclubs, and casinos have to close at 10 pm.

The number of people at culture and sports events will be limited to 1,000 who are vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 All other public gatherings can be attended by up to 100 visitors, down from 1,000.

Slovakia

Slovakia declared a 90-day state of emergency and a two-week lockdown following a spike in COVID-19 cases that saw the country’s seven-day average of cases rise above 10,000.

Some retail stores such as for electronics, shoes, or household goods can be open between 5 am and 8 pm.

Many events are subject to a COVID-19 health pass.

Ukraine

Ukraine has seen a decrease in the number of daily cases in recent days, with 2,988 cases reported on Sunday (26 December).

This marks a significant improvement compared to the situation in mid-December, when the country reported about 9,000 cases and 2,028 hospitalisations registered just on 17 December.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced on 16 November that those who receive two jabs of the vaccine will be given a payment of 1,000 hryvnias, or about 33 euros in an attempt to alleviate vaccination reluctance.

Statistics on how many people received both doses vary greatly, with reports claiming that it stands anywhere between 20 and 28 per cent.

Romania

Romanian government eased some of the restrictions on Wednesday (8 December) as the number of those positive to COVID-19 fell to less than 1,500.

The new ease of measures includes eliminating a night curfew and an obligation to wear face masks outdoors.

Ahead of the holiday season, the government tightened travel restrictions, requiring negative COVID-19 tests and quarantining unvaccinated travellers. Passenger locator forms will also be introduced from 20 December.

The country experienced the worst spike of infections with 15,000 daily cases recorded in early November, while the vaccination rate remained steady at just under 39 per cent in a country of about 19 million.

Bulgaria

Cases are decreasing in Bulgaria after a massive surge in October but the vaccination rate is still quite low at just a quarter of the population.

There were 838 new cases reported on Sunday (26 December) and 48 deaths — a decline compared to last week’s numbers. The health ministry said earlier that a majority of the deaths were people who are unvaccinated.

Latvia

From 15 December, people must present a COVID-19 vaccination or recovery certificate in order to show up to work.

People who are not vaccinated or who have not recovered from COVID-19 are allowed in grocery shops, pharmacies, and other essential shops.

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