Christmas Covid crackdown sweeps Europe: Austria will make un-boosted British tourists quarantine, Spain makes masks outdoors mandatory and Belgium bans shopping in groups of more than two
Europe is cracking down on Covid-19 over the Christmas period as countries race to administer booster vaccines before Omicron becomes the dominant variant.
From Christmas day, British holidaymakers to Austria will be required to quarantine unless they have been given three jabs (two doses and a booster), or can show a negative PCR test. The same applies to The Netherlands, Norway and Denmark.
In Spain, the government made it compulsory to wear a face mask outdoors again as part of a package aimed at containing Omicron, while Belgium banned shopping in groups of more than two.
Germany, Scotland, Ireland, and the Netherlands have reimposed partial or full lockdowns or other social distancing measures in recent days.
Germany’s health minister said he had not ruled out a full lockdown.
Italy was preparing new measures and might make vaccinations obligatory for more categories of workers, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said.
Northern Ireland ordered the closure of nightclubs from Sunday after reporting an all-time high of 3,231 COVID-19 cases.
The Czech Republic is also among the EU countries considering new curbs.
Pictured: A graph showing the seven-day rolling average daily new confirmed Covid-19 cases per million people in the UK, Switzerland, France, The Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Sweden and Austria
People wearing face masks to curb the spread of coronavirus walk in downtown Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is convening a special Cabinet meeting Thursday to pass a decree-law that makes it mandatory to wear masks outdoors, amid a record surge in COVID-19 cases
Governments across Europe are racing to contain Omicron’s rapid spread, urging citizens to get vaccinated as the more infectious variant upended reopening plans that many had hoped would herald the end of the pandemic.
Britain on Wednesday reported more than 100,000 new daily COVID-19 cases for the first time since widespread testing was introduced, leaving many industries struggling with staff shortages as workers self-isolate.
France reported 84,272 new COVID-19 infections in the last 24 hours, close to its all-time high. Spain, Italy and Sweden are also seeing a surge in cases.
‘There is no doubt that Europe is once again the epicentre of the global pandemic. Yes, I’m very concerned, but there is no reason for panic. The good news is… we know what to do,’ the WHO’s European head, Hans Kluge said Wednesday.
ENTRY REQUIREMENTS FOR BRITISH ARRIVALS AND COVID-19 RULES IN EUROPEAN COUNTRIES
From Christmas Day, Britons arriving in Austria will be required to quarantine unless they have had their booster Covid-19 vaccination or can present a negative PCR test.
Austria has also implemented a 10pm curfew for bars and restaurants from December 27 – which will be earlier on New Years Eve.
Indoor events have also been limited, and there are also different rules people must adhere to based on the size of their group.
Only those travelling for ‘essential reasons’ may enter France from the UK. Such reasons are defined by French authorities.
All UK arrivals must self-isolate for 48 hours and a negative PCR test must be presented for this to end. Those without a negative test result will be required to quarantine for 10 days.
Since November 26, it has been compulsory to wear a mask in all indoor public spaces in France, and some busy or crowded outdoor spaces.
Those that are fully vaccinated may enter Italy, but must show proof of a negative PCR test or negative antigen test 48 or 24 hours respectively before entering the country.
Those that are not fully vaccinated must show evidence of a negative PCR test within 48 hours before entering, must notify local health authorities of their entry, and must self-isolate for five days. After five days, another PCR or antigen test must be taken.
Italy is currently divided into ‘white’ and ‘yellow’ zones, and also has a tiered Covid pass system. Green passes show someone has either been vaccinated, tested negative or has recovered from Covid in the last six months, while the Super Green Pass can only be obtained through vaccination.
In the ‘white’ regions, Covid restrictions are more relaxed. It is mandatory to wear a mask indoors, with some regions requiring masks outdoors if streets are busy. Meanwhile, indoor dining and some other indoor leisure is only allowed for those with Super Green Passes.
In ‘yellow’ regions, masks are required both outdoors and indoors, and there are more instances that required the Super Green Pass.
Fully vaccinated travellers are eligible to enter Switzerland, but must also have a negative PCR test.
Those who are not fully vaccinated may only enter if they meet a set list of criteria, such as being an EU national or have a residence permit. Otherwise, unvaccinated Britons may not enter.
From December 20, only people who have been vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19 in Switzerland are able to go inside restaurants, cultural, sporting and leisure venues and attend indoor events.
Masks must also be worn in these settings and food and drink can only be consumed when seated.
Only tourists who are fully vaccinated can enter Spain from the UK. Those who are not vaccinated and travelling for tourism purposes may not enter Spain. Only those who are unvaccinated and travelling for ‘essential’ purposes may enter.
Indoor mask wearing is mandatory in Spain, and it is expected that outdoor mask wearing will be made mandatory as well, with the country’s Prime Minister convening a special meeting to expedite the rule.
Fully vaccinated travellers may enter Sweden for all purposes, without the need to test or self-isolate. Unvaccinated arrivals must show proof they are exempt from Sweden’s travel ban, and show a valid negative test.
Sweden’s Covid ‘rules’ are mostly listed as recommendations, with the public health body suggesting all to keep distance from others and avoid crowded public transport where possible.
All arrivals in Norway must get tested, regardless of their vaccination status.
Vaccinated or recovered arrivals from the UK will not be required to have taken a pre-departure test.
However, all unvaccinated arrivals must prove a negative test was taken 24 hours before arrival.
Unvaccinated arrivals from the UK must also quarantine for 10 days at home or in a hotel, as the UK is a ‘dark red’ country on Norway’s travel list.
Like Sweden, Norway has also made recommendations. The country suggest people limit their social contact to smaller groups and households, and to get tested when symptoms appear.
It is also a requirement to wear a face mask when it is not possible to keep a one-meter distance.
Austria’s latest coronavirus measures sees holidaymakers from the UK, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark having to undergo mandatory quarantine upon entry from Christmas day – unless they have had a booster Covid vaccine and can show a negative PCR test.
The Austrian government implemented the measure after declaring the four countries Omicron hotspots. Although Omicron is already present in Austria, it is hoped the latest measure will stop the variant from spreading more rapidly.
Austria introduced the stringent entry procedures along with a raft of other measures, including a curfew in the catering trade, which will be set at 10pm from 27th December, with an even earlier time set for New Year’s Eve.
Indoor events are also limited and there are different rules people must follow depending on group size.
The restrictions on travel are set to affect both British travellers and the Austrian tourist trade, as Austria is a popular winter sports destination among Brits.
Neighbouring Switzerland is set to reap the spoils of Austria’s new measures, as it has not, for the time being, introduced stringent measures of its own, and the slopes of Gstaad, Muerren and Verbier are hoping to pick up those visitors who are calling off their holidays to Austria.
Switzerland is already reporting that more Brits are holidaying in Swiss ski resorts than usual, with strict entry regulations in other countries cited as a possible reason.
Furthermore, in Switzerland, coronavirus rules regarding restaurants are laxer, making the country all the more attractive as a holiday destination.
Spain will make it compulsory to wear a face mask outdoors again as part of a package aimed at containing the fast spreading Omicron coronavirus variant, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told reporters on Wednesday.
With nearly 80 percent of its population vaccinated and a booster programme gathering pace, Spain was largely spared the rampant wave of infections that led several northern European countries to toughen restrictions in the autumn.
But the recent arrival of Omicron has sent numbers rocketing, with a record of around 60,000 new infections on Wednesday, though hospital admissions and intensive-care cases remain fairly low compared to previous COVID-19 waves.
Some experts and opposition parties have criticised Sanchez for not reimposing restrictions on movement to due the spread of Omicron, as other European countries such as Portugal or the Netherlands have done, but he rejected this.
‘This is not March 2020 or Christmas 2020,’ said Sanchez, citing the high vaccination rate of the Spanish population in contrast with those earlier stages of the pandemic when vaccines were not available.
Indoor mask-wearing was already mandatory in Spain and many Spaniards choose to cover their faces outdoors too, although the legal obligation to do so was dropped in June.
Mandatory outdoor mask-wearing is to be approved on Thursday at an extraordinary cabinet meeting and take force on Christmas Eve.
However, Sanchez said there would be numerous exceptions, such as when people are in open spaces with live-in relatives.
Sanchez’s administration also plans to loosen rules on the type of home-testing kits pharmacies can sell and earmark 292 million euros to beef up the struggling primary-care sector, the government said in a statement.
Spain’s regions are responsible for their healthcare systems and have the power to limit indoor capacity and business hours, but most have made only non-binding recommendations to citizens.
Stark political differences between the regions complicate any broader agreement on concrete restrictions and mean local approaches to curbing infection vary widely.
A decree-law does not require a debate and vote in parliament before taking effect.
He also announced a raft of other measures, including an offer to deploy the armed forces to help the regions step up their vaccination rollout and put military hospital beds at their disposal if they are needed.
Also, Covid-19 tests for professional use will temporarily be placed on sale at pharmacies, amid a reported shortage of tests, and medical teams will be reinforced with retired staff and specialists who earned their qualifications outside the European Union.
Furthermore, fully vaccinated people will not need to quarantine if they have been in contact with an infected person – a measure that seemed to be aimed at avoiding the shortages of essential personnel.
Spain on Tuesday officially recorded almost 50,000 new cases of coronavirus. That is higher than last January, when a surge placed the national health system under severe strain.
Spain is reporting almost 700 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days, more than double the accumulated cases before last year’s Christmas holidays. The Omicron strain has soared from 5% of new cases in Spain to 47% within one week.
Still, vaccinations are credited with sparing many people from the virus’s worst effects. While last January some 30,000 Covid-19 patients were in the hospital in Spain, now it is fewer than 8,000.
Mr Sanchez told the Spanish parliament that 90 percent of the target population aged 12 and over is fully vaccinated.
He told lawmakers: ‘Don’t worry, families will be able to celebrate Christmas. Spain has prevailed.’
Shoppers wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19 walk along the Christmas market at Tuilerie garden in Paris, Monday, December 20, 2021
Students from the Free University sit socially-distanced exams in the RAI, in Amsterdam on December 23, 2021, despite the lockdown, the students were allowed to take their exams, with the tables spread out in order to limit the risk of the virus spreading
Belgium decided on Wednesday to also further tighten restrictions in anticipation of the surging omicron variant, but shied away from a full lockdown like the neighbouring Netherlands did.
The authorities decided to close cinemas, theatres and concert halls and ban indoor activities. Sports fans will be closed out of stadiums and indoor halls.
Shopping will be curtailed with visitors forced to be spread out and groups entering a shop limited to two adults, possibly accompanied by children.
The measures will kick in Sunday.
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said that ‘there is reason for concern. We are facing omicron.’ He added that ‘what we know about it is bad news,’ referring to its high transmissibility. It remains unclear how badly it affects the body.
‘It is a tough package,’ said virologist Marc Van Ranst. Bars and restaurants though would be allowed to remain open until 11 p.m. under restrained conditions.
Several virologists and epidemiologists in Belgium say they expect a fifth Covid wave within days, leaving little respite as the fourth fades.
The country of 11.5 million people, nestled between France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany, has recorded 28,000 Covid deaths over the entire pandemic.
Authorities counted a daily average of 8,300 infections over the past week, a drop of a third over the week before.
But that was the Delta chapter of the pandemic. Now, more than 27 percent of new infections are of the Omicron variant, according to eight genetic sequencing labs.
Omicron is expected to become the dominant strain within days, as has already happened in other countries, such as the US, Denmark and Britain.
Staff at a Belgian hospital told AFP news agency they are already at breaking point.
Doctors and nurses are in a state of ‘extreme exhaustion,’ said Martial Moonen, head of the infectious diseases service at the public hospital in Liege.
He said his ward, currently holding 70 Covid patients of whom 14 are in intensive care, was struggling with ‘permanent saturation’.
People line up at a pharmacy to book nasal swabs test, in Milan, Italy, December 22, 2021
A patient with severe Covid could fill an intensive care bed for up to four weeks, significantly longer than the three-day average for other conditions at the hospital, he said.
For the 50-year-old specialist, the calculation is brutal: ‘While you’re treating 15 Covid patients in intensive care for a month, you are preventing between 100 and 150 other people from accessing that care.’
He said temporary reinforcements were no longer available to cover for nurses’ absences through illness or burnout.
For those still working, ‘there is exhaustion, so much exhaustion,’ he said.
The ‘vast majority’ of hospitalised patients are unvaccinated, Moonen said.
Meanwhile in Germany, the country’s health minister said on Thursday that he expects a surge in coronavirus cases around New Year and that people will likely need a fourth vaccine shot to maintain the best immune response against Covid-19.
Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told public radio network WDR 2 that Germany hasn’t yet seen a big, rapid wave of new infections from the omicron variant like some other European countries.
‘That will change around New Year and in the first week of January,’ Lauterbach said.
The government is urging Germans to limit their contacts over the holiday period and to get vaccinated, including with booster shots if they’ve already had their initial vaccines.
Official figures show 70.7 percent of the population have received a full course of vaccine, while 35 percent have had boosters.
Demonstrations against new pandemic restrictions and a planned vaccine mandate have flared up in Germany over the past weeks.
Police said about 5,000 protesters gathered in the centre of Munich late on Wednesday, with some participants attacking officers. Eleven people were detained.
People hold candles during a demonstration in memory of the victims of the COVID-19 virus and to thank the health workers on December 19, 2021, on the Ringstrasse in Vienna, Austria
Police officers try to stop a demonstration march of opponents of the Corona policy in front of the main train station in Munich, Germany, Wednesday, December 22, 2021
The Italian government is also preparing new measures to battle a surge in COVID-19 infections and might make vaccinations obligatory for more categories of workers, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Wednesday.
Key officials are due to meet on Thursday to discuss tightening COVID-19 curbs as concerns grow over the highly infectious Omicron variant.
Draghi told reporters that among the measures that would be considered were a return to obligatory mask-wearing outdoors and the use of more protective Ffp2 masks in some enclosed spaces. He also said vaccine mandates might be reviewed.
‘They have already been extended to some categories, and we’ll consider extending it to other categories. I don’t know if we will talk about it tomorrow … but if data on contagions continue to worsen it will be the subject of discussion in a very short while,’ Draghi said.
In an effort to curb COVID-19 infections, the government has already made vaccinations mandatory for health care workers, teachers, law enforcement officers and the military.