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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

COVID in Europe: France joins countries reducing self-isolation for vaccinated people

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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.

Several nations have been reporting record numbers of new daily cases, the increase 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 to vaccinate young children.

France

Fully vaccinated people who test positive will now be required to self-isolate for seven days, down from 10 days, the government announced on Sunday. The self-isolation can be lifted five days in if people test negative. Meanwhile, fully vaccinated contacts of people who test positive will no longer be required to self-isolate.

It came a day after French authorities announced that children six and older will have to wear masks in indoor places open to the public as new cases of the highly contagious omicron variant surge past 200.000 for the fourth consecutive day.

These measures follow a raft of others announced by Prime minister Jean Castex in the final week of 2021, which included a reduction of the period between vaccine jabs 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 on January 3.

“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.

New Year’s public events such as the fireworks display in Paris had already been cancelled with nightclubs closed for four weeks earlier in the month with a three-week extension starting from 3 January announced on 29 December.

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.

The government has accelerated its timetable for the transformation of its “health pass” to a “vaccine pass” that would limit access to bars, restaurants, as well as leisure and cultural venues to unvaccinated people regardless of whether they have a negative test or not. Lawmakers are expected to approve the measure in early in the new year with a roll out scheduled for mid-January.

Mask-wearing has been made compulsory outdoors in several cities including Paris and Lyon — despite widespread scepticism that such moves have any impact.

The government has also approved COVID-19 jabs for children five to 11 years old.

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. Since mid-December, people over the age of 65 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.

Italy

Italy surged to a record 98,030 new cases of COVID-19 infections on Wednesday (December 29), an increase of 25% in one day.

The government was considering reducing the quarantine for vaccinated people, amid forecasts that more than 2 million people could be forced to isolate after close contacts with infected people.

The country further tightened its restrictions on December 23, barring unvaccinated people from public spaces and enforcing mask-wearing outdoors. Only more-protective FFP2 masks may be worn on public transport, in cinemas, theatres and stadiums.

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

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.

Officials say 71% of those hospitalised are not vaccinated.

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.

Spain

Updating pandemic figures for the first time in four days, health authorities reported 214,619 new cases late on Monday (27 December), bringing the 14-day national caseload to a pandemic record level of 1,206 new infections per 100,000 residents.

At the height of the January surge, which until now was the one that infected most people in Spain, the rate had gone up to 900.

Madrid 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% of the Spanish population is already immunised, but fears of the Omicron variant have triggered a vaccination drive.

United Kingdom

Public health policy regarding COVID varies across the UK’s four nations, with England largely free of new restrictions — unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The UK government has resisted imposing new holiday restrictions in England — 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 would be no further restrictions in England in 2021, ahead of a review in the new year. He asked people to “remain cautious” and refrain from public New Year’s celebrations. England’s chief medical officer has urged people to limit who they see in the festive period.

The previous week Javid said that the mandatory self-isolation period for people who test positive was being cut from ten days to seven days — “to minimise the disruption COVID has on people’s lives” — provided they have two negative lateral flow tests on days 6 and 7.

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 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 for the third day. Numbers have since risen further, hitting another record on December 31 with 189,846 new daily cases.

London mayor Sadiq Khan has said that traditional New Year’s Eve festivities in Britain’s capital are cancelled, after declaring a “major incident” following 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.

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.

Belgium

The government was on Tuesday (28 December) rebuked by an advisory body which suspended new curbs on the cultural sector. The following day the government said it was revoking its decision, allowing theatres, cinemas, concert halls and art centres to remain open.

Under the short-lived restrictions that took effect Sunday, indoor venues had been ordered to shut their doors. Some stayed open in protest. The order came despite the assessment of the scientific committee advising the government that going to such places poses no extra risk to public health.

In an emergency procedure, the Council of State ruled that measures concerning theatres were “not proportionate,” and didn’t provide enough motives to “understand why going to cultural sector performance venues was particularly dangerous for public health.”

Protesters had gathered on Sunday (26 December) after Belgium introduced the new restrictions. Museums, libraries, and fitness centres were, however, allowed to stay open.

The Belgian government also urged people to get tested ahead of the holidays. Infections have been decreasing recently but the new Omicron variant already represented 27% of new cases in the country on December 19.

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 87% 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.

Portugalset a new record for daily COVID-19 cases on December 31, officially reporting almost 31,000 new infections. It was the fourth straight record-breaking day.

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.

Finland

Finland decided to reintroduce internal border control at its borders starting on Tuesday 28 December, the country’s foreign affairs ministry said in a statement on their website.

The decision – first of its kind in Europe – will remain in force until 16 January 2022.

The rule affects all Schengen states as well, and potential travellers are urged to check entry requirements before their trip.

Denmark

All foreigners and non-residents entering Denmark from 27 December 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.

The country with the world’s highest number of COVID-19 cases per head of population, smashed its record on Wednesday (December 29) with 23,228 confirmed cases over the previous 24 hours.

The number of coronavirus infections in Denmark started to rise sharply in early December but by later in the month the pace seemed to have leveled off. But health officials then said the number of infections had started rising dramatically again.

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

Health authorities announced on Friday (31 December) that cantons could reduce the quarantine of contact cases to seven days from the previous ten and limit it to “people who live in the same household or have been in intimate contact with a person who has tested positive”.

Switzerland has already restricted 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

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

Austria lifted its lockdown on 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 a 10pm curfew for restaurants and an FFP2 mask is required on public transport and in indoor spaces.

Austria has tightened entry rules into the country. As of December 25, people aged over 12 arriving from the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway must have had a third vaccine dose and present a negative COVID test result no older than 48 hours.

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 have been operating at reduced capacity since 15 December amid rising infections. Public transport is being limited to 75 per cent of capacity.

The government announced 794 COVID-related deaths on Wednesday (December 29), the highest in the fourth wave of the virus. More than three-quarters were unvaccinated, a minister said.

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.

Turkey

Turkey’s health ministry is allowing a fifth dose as a booster for people who’ve received two doses each of Sinovac and BioNTech vaccines.

Healthcare workers and people above 65 started off their inoculation early in 2021 with China’s Sinovac’s inactivated vaccine. They became eligible for a third and fourth doses with Pfizer-BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine in response to the highly-contagious delta variant.

More than 83% of Turkey’s adult population have received two doses of vaccines and nearly 18.7 million people received a third.

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