For many in Europe, Christmas is last chance to be merry before more COVID-19 curbs set in
UK: Despite having one of the best vaccination rates in Europe, Spain has just decided to reimpose the mandatory wearing of masks in all outdoor places after it recorded a dramatic jump in coronavirus cases, with almost half of all new infections attributed to the Omicron variant.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez also ordered his military to help with the vaccine booster programme.
Just about the only concession Mr Sanchez offered his nation is that the measures will not interfere too drastically with Christmas-related events.
“Don’t worry, families will be able to celebrate,” he told the Spanish Parliament in Madrid.
And as Europe is rapidly becoming the epicentre of the new Omicron wave of infections, governments throughout the continent are facing a challenge similar to that of Spain: How to ensure that the festive season can still take place while reinstating health-related restrictions.
Spain’s problem is that although 81 per cent of its population is fully vaccinated – compared with only 61 per cent in the United States, for instance – just 20 per cent of Spaniards have received the booster shot and soaring new infection rates are currently among the highest in Europe.
With Christmas just two days away, the country is recording around 695 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, higher than at any time during the pandemic.
So, although Spain held out for some time against the reintroduction of restrictions because it knew that these are bound to be unpopular, its government ultimately had to bow to the inevitable
The shutters are coming down elsewhere in Europe. Neighbouring Portugal – another country that had initially done very well in the vaccination stakes – has now ordered all bars and nightclubs shut from Sunday, immediately after the Christmas revelries are over.
Austria, in the heart of Europe, is doing the same from next Monday, putting a damper on New Year events. After Christmas, there is “no time to celebrate”, said Austrian chief medical officer Katharina Reich.
And Germany, Europe’s biggest nation, is implementing similar measures.
Finland, on the opposite northern tip of the continent, is taking a milder approach, by allowing restaurants and bars to remain open until 10pm.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands remains in a strict lockdown until mid-January.
The one exception to this trend is Britain, which holds the record in Europe for the number of infections, with more than 100,000 new cases reported daily.
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is deeply divided over reintroducing restrictions.
Masks are required on public transport and a few other public places, but at least for the moment, there are no measures to close nightclubs and bars in England, although Scotland and Wales have more restrictive arrangements.
London’s curious hesitation in the face of the worst infection figures may be explained by Mr Johnson’s political difficulties, for his reputation was damaged by revelations that both he and his closest associates ignored health regulations during last year’s lockdowns.
So, it is more than likely that the British government is simply waiting until after Christmas before tightening health restrictions, in the hope that by then the political scandals would have subsided.
Everywhere in Europe, the emphasis is on accelerating the vaccine booster programme.
Britain, where almost half the population has now received a third dose of a vaccine, has pledged to administer about 1 million booster shots a day, an objective that initially seemed impossible but is now being met.
Germany has set a target of 30 million booster vaccinations by the end of the year, and with 28 million already delivered, it is close to hitting its targets.
But General Carsten Breuer, the head of Germany’s pandemic crisis team, wants to accelerate the pace.
“The week before and the week after Christmas are extremely important,” he said, largely because people have free time to get vaccinated.
The eagerness of all European governments to avoid any disturbance of traditional Christmas celebrations is due to the realisation that there is a growing resistance in the public about the continuation of restrictive measures, as well as heightened suspicions about the role scientific committees play in advising politicians on lockdowns.
A fierce media debate is now taking place in Britain over allegations that the country’s scientific advisers are exaggerating the potential impact of Omicron, and that the number of those requiring hospitalisation is far lower than anticipated.
The fact that infection numbers throughout Europe are soaring while death figures remain low are feeding a growing narrative that politicians may be over-cautious, and that many of the imposed restrictions are not necessary.
– THE STRAITS TIMES