UK push is seen as omicron warning, but answers vary
LONDON (AP) – Spiraling infections in Britain driven in part by the novel omicron variant of the coronavirus rocked many in Europe on Thursday, fueling familiar fears that stricter restrictions will again undermine holiday plans this year .
Much remains unknown about omicron, but more and more officials are warning that at the very least, it appears to be more transmissible than the delta variant, which was already putting pressure on US hospitals in the Netherlands. With so many questions unanswered, uncertainty reigned over how quickly and severely to crack down on Christmas travel and the holiday season.
After the UK recorded its highest number of new confirmed COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic, France announced on Thursday that it would tighten entry rules for those coming from Britain. Hours later, the country set a new record, with 88,376 more confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported on Thursday, nearly 10,000 more than the day before.
In England, the chief medical officer urged people to limit who they see during the holiday season – and pubs and restaurants have said many are following the advice by canceling the Christmas holidays, although there are has had a lot of debate about what is acceptable to do at this time. In the United States, meanwhile, the White House has insisted a lockdown was not necessary, despite signs that omicron was gaining traction there.
Globally, more than 75 countries have reported confirmed cases of the new variant. In Britain, where omicron cases double every two or three days, the variant is expected to replace delta as the dominant strain in the country soon – and the government has stepped up its recall program in response. Authorities in the 27-country European Union say omicron will be the dominant variant of the bloc by mid-January.
Along with hints that it’s more contagious, early data suggests that omicron may be milder but better at evading vaccines, making booster shots more crucial. Experts urged caution, especially when it comes to drawing conclusions about its lightness, as hospitalizations lag behind infections and many variables contribute to how people get sick.
Additionally, even though omicron is found to be gentler overall than delta, it can disarm some of the available rescue tools and endanger immunosuppressed people and the elderly. And if it is more transmissible, more infections overall increase the risk of more cases being serious.
As experts gathered the data, some governments rushed to act, while others sought to allay fears that the new variant would bring countries back to square one.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted on Thursday that the situation in the UK is different from last year due to the widespread use of vaccines and the possibility of testing.
He said if people want to attend an event, “the smart thing to do is take a test and make sure you’re careful.”
“But we’re not saying we want to undo things, we’re not locking things out, and the quickest path to normalcy is to be boosted,” he said.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, however, took a more cautious note, advising people earlier in the week to limit their social contact.
On Thursday, he said during a parliamentary committee hearing that the government may have to review measures if the vaccines prove to be less effective than expected against omicron.
He said “it would be a significant change in the way ministers view risks going forward.”
Among those who took the more cautious route was Queen Elizabeth II, who chose to cancel her traditional family lunch before Christmas as cases skyrocketed.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, has been partially stranded since November to curb an increase due to the delta and while the number of infections is now declining, the government this week ordered elementary schools to close for Christmas a week earlier, fearing that omicron could fuel a further increase. Authorities have also stepped up a vaccination booster campaign as Acting Prime Minister Mark Rutte cited Britain as an example of how quickly the variant can spread.
EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday for a summit sought to balance the fight against the wave of infections across the continent while keeping borders open with common policies across the bloc.
“Let us try to maintain the European solution,” said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. “If each country goes it alone again, we will be even further from home. “
But ahead of the meeting, European nations were already taking action to curb the spread of the virus. Greece and Italy tightened entry requirements for travelers earlier this week, and Portugal decided to maintain tighter border controls beyond the scheduled end of January 9.
France on Thursday said it would impose restrictions on travelers from the UK – which is no longer part of the EU – by limiting reasons to travel and requiring 48-hour isolation on arrival. The new measures will come into force on Saturday.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex said the measures are being imposed “in the face of the extremely rapid spread of the omicron variant in the UK”
The brutal decision comes after weeks of political tension between France and Britain over fishing rights and the management of migration across the Channel. It also comes as the French government desperately tries to avoid a new lockdown that would hurt the economy and darken President Emmanuel Macron’s expected re-election campaign.
Waiting outside a Parisian train station, Constantin Dobrynin said he sometimes felt like governments overreacted and imposed unnecessary measures. As for omicron, it was not yet clear how bad that would be.
“So we have to be balanced and not panic,” he said.
Britain has said it does not plan for reciprocal measures.
Fearing a string of canceled holidays and a general decline in business at the height of the crucial and lucrative Christmas season, UK restaurants and pubs turned to the government for help on Thursday. They said concerns about the new variant had already wiped out £ 2 billion ($ 2.6 billion) in sales in the past 10 days.
Across London, restaurants that would normally see bustling crowds toasting and enjoying festive meals were reporting many cancellations and empty rooms.
“It’s a complete nightmare…. This week should be the busiest week of the year for hospitality, ”said Sally Abé, chef at the Conrad Hotel in central London. “It’s everywhere, everyone is canceling, but there is no government support.”
Corder reported from The Hague, The Netherlands. Associated Press writer Sylvia Hui in London and journalists from across Europe contributed.
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