In the midst of a fourth Covid wave and as the unstoppable new Omicron variant infects the European Union, governments’ attempts starting this week to curb the spike by reintroducing restrictions — reminiscent of last year’s tightened rules — range from a national lockdown in Austria to travel bans, curtailed services at restaurants and stores, limits or canceling of shows and events and mandatory testing and masks.
The mood around the continent is mainly one of confusion and concern with experts recommending tougher rules ’to avoid chaos’ as end-of-year celebrations approach.
Their efforts are being complicated as the latest wave of cases are aggravated by the new South African variant and governments’ attempts to tread carefully for fear of jeopardising their stumbling economic recoveries.
Anti-lockdown protests — some turning violent — have occurred in recent days in Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Italy and Croatia.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that unless urgent action is taken preliminary evidence suggests the Omicron variant may spread more rapidly than previous coronavirus infections and calculates that 700,000 more deaths could be recorded in Europe and Asia by March 2022, bringing the total to 2.2 million since the pandemic began.
The agency has urged its 194 member states to accelerate vaccination of high-priority groups and to “ensure mitigation plans are in place” to maintain essential health services.
Red lists are back
The European Union along with the United States, Japan, Australia and Canada “have moved to block flights from African countries following the discovery of the Omicron variant, echoing previous emergency responses that triggered a global freeze on travel,” CNN reports.
Bans are restricting travel from South Africa and other African nations including Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola in an effort to slow the spread as passengers found themselves stranded without a warning.
Despite the bans, the new variant has already been found in at least a dozen countries.
One of the big alerts came from the Netherlands, where 61 people arriving on two flights from South Africa last Friday tested positive for coronavirus. Cases of Omicron infection have been detected in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, the Czech Republic and Switzerland.
“The situation in some EU member states, particularly those with low vaccination rates, is indeed dramatic,” reports The Guardian. “In central and eastern Europe in particular, but also Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands, case numbers are rocketing.”
According to figures from OurWorldInData, the EU’s average has quadrupled in recent weeks, from just over 110 daily new cases per million people on October 1 to 446 last Thursday.
Is travel coordination possible?
The European Commission had proposed just last week that all persons who hold an authorized vaccination certificate should be permitted to travel to the bloc and that the member states should coordinate travel rules based on vaccination status.
But with the situation worsening, such a recommendation is contingent on the health conditions of each country, and what seems to rule now is confusion as governments act on their own and restrictions vary from one day to the next and from country to country.
WHO has strongly advised that people refrain from traveling during this time and that those who must take a trip be cautious and carry the necessary documents with them at all times.
The European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) has also suggested that everyone, especially unvaccinated and those not fully recovered from infection, refrain from taking any non-essential trips given that most EU members – Austria, Belgium, Czechia, half of Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Ireland, Iceland, Poland, the Netherlands, Latvia, Lithuania, Greece, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Slovenia and Slovakia – are currently on the ‘dark red list’ due to their high incidence rates, according to SchengenVisa.
Spain, Portugal and France, which have been the safest destinations until now, have also reported increased Covid-19 cases. “Still, travel to one of these three territories is not as strongly discouraged as travel to dark-red-listed areas, provided that travellers meet the entry requirements of their destination country,”writes SchengenVisa.
Germany, a country that has been particularly cautious in the management of the Covid-19 epidemic, reported an incidence of 79,400 new cases, its worst until now, prompting top health officials to raise the prospect of a national lockdown.
Portugal, with one of the highest rates of vaccination covering 86% of its population, announced the reintroduction of rules like obligatory face masks in enclosed spaces from December 1, the need of digital certificate showing vaccination or recovery to enter restaurants, nightclubs, bars, hotels and cinemas, negative tests needed to enter hospitals, nursing homes, bars, clubs and sports events.
In addition to the vaccine passport, a PCR test (done maximum 48 hours prior to departure) is now required for anyone flying into the country.
In Great Britain, where the government has been talking of the country achieving “almost herd immunity,” the numbers of cases has averaged around 40,000 a day for the past month, forcing Prime Minister Boris Johnson to announce on Saturday the reimposition of restrictions such as compulsory mask-wearing in shops and public transport and for secondary-school students in communal areas.
Shoppers and passengers who refuse to wear masks from face fines of £200, The Independent reports.
All arrivals – even if fully vaccinated – must self-isolate until they get a negative result for their Day 2 test. The introduction of the compulsory Covid PCR tests for everyone arriving in the UK has been welcomed by scientists while it was described as a “huge blow” for the travel industry.
In Spain the government has tightened entry requirements to the country: Under the new rules published Saturday, from Dec.1, visitors from the United Kingdom who are not EU residents will have to be fully vaccinated to enter, while those from ‘high-risk’ areas will need to provide a negative Covid test in addition to proof of vaccination
France: In a press release published Monday, Nov. 29, the Paris police chief announced that face masks will become compulsory in certain outdoor spaces in the city and in all indoor public spaces– including venues covered by the health pass, such as cinemas and bars, which were previously exempt.
Local authorities in the rest of the country have the power to impose extra mask rules for outdoor public spaces if they feel it necessary.
Masks will be required at all gatherings, demonstrations, meetings or organised activities in a public space, festivals or performance venues, markets, vintage sales and flea markets (including Christmas markets), outdoor spaces of universities, outdoor spaces in front of places of worship and in queues.
Paris police will be enforcing the new mask rules, with penalties of €135 for people not wearing a mask in designated areas, as well as checking on the health pass at public establishments like restaurants and bars where it is required. Paris joins at least 23 other local authorities that have imposed extra mask rules.
“The Paris incidence rate, which was between 50 and 100 cases per 100,000 people in October has increased rapidly to 266 cases per 100,000 people and the increase shows no sign of slowing,” the statement adds.
Non-vaccinated people arriving in France most show a negative Covid test no older than 24 hours. Otherwise, they must quarantine for seven days on arrival at a location of their choice. (There will be no police checks during the quarantine period.) A second Covid test must be taken at the end of the quarantine period. This applies to everyone, including French or EU citizens and residents of France.
You will need to complete a declaration stating your reason for travel and another declaration stating that you do not have any Covid symptoms, have not had contact with someone who has tested positive and will abide by the quarantine requirement.
Schools at all levels must start testing children every day. Only those who test positive will need to stay at home.
Ukraine has introduced mandatory 14-day self-isolation for travellers returning from countries where the Omicron variant has been detected.
The more affected countries
The worst-hit countries in terms of numbers of new cases are Slovakia and Slovenia, with seven-day rates of more than 1,6oo cases per million each.
Austria, with the least vaccinated population of western Europe at just 64%, is not far behind, with 1,395 cases per million and the official decision to enter total lockdown.
In France, the rate is 201 daily infections per million, Italy 138, and Spain 95, the same as Portugal, Finland and Sweden. Romania and Bulgaria, which were among the EU’s worst-affected countries, have seen improvements in their figures.
Of all member states, Poland with 154,317 new infection cases, the Netherlands with 156,921, Czechia with 117,409 and Belgium with 85,308 have reported the highest infection rates, according to WHO.
A worrisome world report
In its latest Travel Restrictions Report, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) says that “one out of five world destinations continue to have their borders completely closed as new surges of COVID-19 impact the restart of international tourism. The latest research shows that still 98% of all destinations have some kind of travel restrictions in place:”
- 46 destinations (21% of all destinations worldwide) currently have completely closed their borders to tourists. Of these, 26 destinations have been completely closed since at least the end of April, 2020. A further 55 (25% of all global destinations) continue to partially close their borders to international tourism, and 112 destinations (52% of all destinations) require international tourists to present a PCR or antigen test upon arrival.
- 85 destinations (39% of all destinations worldwide) have eased restrictions for fully vaccinated international tourists, while 20 destinations (9% of all destinations worldwide) have made a full Covid-19 vaccination mandatory for entering for tourism purposes.
- Four destinations have so far completely lifted all Covid-19-related restrictions: Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Mexico.
The following is a run-down of the latest situation in Europe as reported by Euronews:
Boris Johnson announced new entry rules on Saturday with travellers required to take a PCR test within two days of arrival and self-isolate until they get their results. He also said that requirements for face coverings in shops and on public transport would be tightened.
The new rules, announced hours after two cases of the new Omicron variants were detected in the UK, will be reviewed in three weeks.
The government announced new measures to be applied from Dec.1: The country will close nightclubs and require people to work from home. Bars and restaurants should close at 11 pm. Events held indoors must be seated and private meetings, besides weddings and funerals, are banned.
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo admitted that the surge in infections exceeded “the most pessimistic curves” drawn last week by experts..
The country started closing all non-essential shops including bars and restaurants from 17:00 to 05:00. The tighter curbs come just days after the government had implemented a partial lockdown on November 13, forcing bars and restaurants to close at 8 pm.
Hospitality and cultural venues now have to ensure people are seated 1.5m apart. Amateurs sporting events are not permitted between 17:00 and 05:00 with professional sport events allowed to proceed but with no spectators.
The call to work from home has been tightened.
New restrictions risk sparking further protests after four nights of unrest across the country not long ago..
The soaring number of cases in this nation of 17.5 million comes despite more than 84% of the Dutch adult population being fully vaccinated. Cases rose sharply among children aged 4-12, most of whom have yet to be inoculated.
A 30-day state of emergency came into effect last Friday, November 26 as the Czech Republic sees record-high Covid-19 cases.
All Christmas markets across the country are banned and people will not be allowed to drink alcohol in public places,. Bars, restaurants, nightclubs, discotheques and casinos have to close at 10 p.m.
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.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis also said the government has been considering mandatory vaccination for certain groups of people, including the elderly, medical and military personnel and police officers. Just over 58% of the Czech population has been fully vaccinated.
Less than two months ago the country scrapped most curbs when the goal of vaccinating 86% of the population against Covid-19 was reached.
The recent rise of infections compelled the government to act: From December 1, wearing a face mask will again be mandatory in enclosed spaces; a digital certificate proving vaccination or recovery from the coronavirus must be shown to enter restaurants, cinemas and hotels and even inoculated people must have a negative test to visit hospitals, elderly care homes, sports events and bars and discos.
Everyone arriving on a flight from abroad must present a negative test result.
Germany has become the latest country to pass the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths from Covid-19. The country recorded 351 additional deaths related to coronavirus over the past 24 hours.
Last week health minister Jens Spahn warned that Germans will be “vaccinated, cured or dead” by the end of the winter.
Slovakia declared a 90-day state of emergency and a two-week lockdown after the country’s seven-day average of cases passed 10,000.
New measures include closing all non-essential stores, as well as bars and restaurants.
The decision came after president Zuzana Čaputová addressed the nation on Tuesday, saying that “Slovakia is losing the battle against Covid.”
Just 45.3% of the 5.5 million population is fully vaccinated.
Health minister Olivier Véran announced that booster doses would be available for everyone over the age of 18 and that masks would be required in all indoor settings as cases, hospitalisations and deaths rise in the country.
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.
Some 76.8% of France’s 67.4 million people are fully vaccinated.
The Italian government has decided to exclude unvaccinated people from various leisure activities. Starting December 6, 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. Having just a negative test result is no longer acceptable in what was dubbed a “reinforced” or super green pass.
Vaccinations has been made mandatory for law enforcement, military, and all school employees, among others.
Twenty towns in Italy’s South Tyrol province face harsher Covid-19 restrictions with an 8 pm curfew due to high infections and low vaccinations.
On public transport, passengers must wear masks.
Austria is back into a national lockdown, becoming the first EU country to take such a measure in the face of the Covid-19 resurgence.
The lockdown will last at least 10 days but could extend to 20, officials said. Vaccination will become compulsory from February 1.
Coronavirus infections in Russia have started to fall but daily deaths are still at an all-time high. There were more than 34,000 new infections reported on Friday (November 26) and around 1,235 deaths in 24 hours.
About 40% of Russia’s nearly 146 million people have been fully vaccinated, even though the country approved a domestically developed Covid-19 vaccine months before most of the world.
From December 1 a health pass will be required to attend any event of more than 100 people.
The Covid pass — attesting that the holder has either been fully vaccinated, tested negative over the previous 72 hours or recovered from the disease over the preceding six months — is also needed for travel purposes.
New Covid-19 restrictions came into force in Ireland since November 18 due to high rates of infection that have put pressure on hospitals.
People were told to work from home unless attending the workplace is “absolutely necessary” and a requirement for Covid-19 passes (based on vaccination or recovery) is extended to cinemas and theatres, while closing times for all on-licensed premises, including in hotels, was moved to midnight.
From December 9, unvaccinated civil servants and social workers will be fired, the government said. 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 encourage vaccination.
Statistics on how many people received both doses vary greatly, with reports claiming that it stands anywhere between 20 and 28%.
The Swiss government has not issued new Covid-19 measures despite a surge in cases.
Early results from a referendum on Sunday show that Swiss voters back legislation to impose the use of a Covid-19 certificate that lets only people who have been vaccinated, recovered or tested negative attend public events and gatherings.
Cases are beginning to decrease 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 2,370 new cases reported on Friday and 113 new deaths.
Like Bulgaria, Romania has found itself in the throes of a deadly spike in cases in October, but cases have now been decreasing since the beginning of the month.
The country has still been reporting more than 200 deaths per day; just around 37% of the country’s population is vaccinated.
Tens of thousands in Zagreb took to the streets to protest tighter Covid restrictions after the government announced plans to introduce mandatory Covid passes for government and public employees, including school teachers.
Just 39% of the entire population is vaccinated, and 38% of the population in the country received two doses of vaccine, according to the latest figures.
Hundreds of people have marched in Skopje to protest restrictions including mandatory vaccination for public servants.
Covid-19 restrictions ended on November 15 and the government has now revised its measures, allowing for those with certificates proving vaccination or recovery to access all services.
Restrictions are still in place for the unvaccinated, who can only do basic things outside of their homes, such as grocery shopping or travel with public transportation.
The country also banned unvaccinated MPs from attending parliament and participating in meetings.
Denmark will offer Covid-19 booster jobs to people over the age of 18, health authority announced last week, stating that immunity was declining for people in younger age groups as well.
On November 12, Denmark reintroduced its digital pass as it declared Covid-19 “a socially critical disease” amid an increase in cases.
A valid pass is mandatory to enter nightclubs, cafes or to be seated indoors in restaurants.