Spike in infections shakes Europe, fueling holiday fears

LONDON – Britain’s spike in infections driven in part by the omicron variant of the coronavirus rocked Europe on Thursday, causing further restrictions on the continent and fueling a familiar fear on both sides of the Atlantic of entering a new phase of the pandemic just in time for the holidays.

Much remains unknown about the omicron, but officials are increasingly warning that it appears to be more transmissible than the delta variant, which has already put pressure on hospitals around the world. With so many unanswered questions, uncertainty reigned over how quickly and severely to quell 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. Pubs and restaurants have said many people are following this advice in canceling Christmas parties, although there has been a lot of debate about what is okay to do. In the United States, the White House insisted a lockdown was not necessary, despite signs that omicron was gaining ground there.

Globally, more than 75 countries have reported confirmed cases of the new variant. In Britain, where omicron cases are doubling every two or three days, omicron is expected to replace delta as the dominant strain in the country soon. The government has accelerated its stimulus package in response. Authorities in the 27-country European Union say omicron will be the dominant variant of the bloc by mid-January.

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, as hospitalizations lag behind infections and because so many variables contribute to how sick people fall.

Even though Omicron is found to be smoother overall than Delta, it can disarm some of the available rescue tools and put immunosuppressed people and the elderly at particular risk. 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.

If people want to attend an event, “the smart thing to do is take a test and make sure you are careful,” he said.

“But we’re not saying we want to undo things. We’re not locking things up, and the quickest path to normalcy is to be boosted,” he said.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty 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 have taken the more cautious route is Queen Elizabeth II, who has chosen to cancel her traditional family pre-Christmas lunch.

In the United States, President Joe Biden’s administration has said tighter restrictions are not planned. He said the omicron variant is not spreading as quickly as it is in Europe because of the actions taken by his administration.

However, he warned unvaccinated Americans were facing “a winter of serious illness and death.”

White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said the United States was “in a very different and stronger place than we were a year ago.”

Still, feelings of unease persisted in some people.

Michael Stohl, 32, was relieved when he received the Pfizer vaccine last spring, but the spread of omicron has turned his optimism into fear.

“Even though I’m fully vaccinated right now, that doesn’t seem to give me any guarantees anymore,” he said. “It just puts that anxiety over you because they tell you the boosters will work, but that’s what they said about the original vaccines. Will I have to keep getting the vaccine every two months? “

He said he made an appointment to receive his callback Thursday morning.

Stohl, who works in the concierge for a building in downtown Washington, said his family lived in the city, so he wasn’t traveling for Christmas. However, he is worried about friends and colleagues who will be traveling.

“I just remember how bad everything was last year, and it looks like it could be that bad again,” he said.

The Dutch, meanwhile, have been partially stranded since November to curb a surge due to the delta. As the number of infections is now on the decline, the government this week ordered elementary schools to close for Christmas a week earlier amid fears of a further increase. Authorities have also stepped up a recall 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 before the meeting, European nations were already taking action to curb the spread. 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 said Thursday it would impose restrictions on travelers from the UK – which is no longer part of the EU – by limiting the reasons for travel and requiring 48 hours of isolation on arrival. The new measures will take effect on Saturday morning.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex said the measures were 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. The French government is desperately trying 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 having festive meals were reporting numerous 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 editors Sylvia Hui in London, Parker Purifoy in Washington, and AP journalists across Europe contributed to this report.


Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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