Spain has introduced new Covid rules on face masks, the latest country to tighten restrictions as the highly contagious Omicron variant threatens to bring widespread infection.
German health experts fear the Omicron mutation will very soon be the dominant strain in the country, after outbreaks in Denmark, Portugal and the UK driven by the variant.
Belgium also imposed sweeping restrictions, including bans on fans at sports games and the cancellation of most indoor cultural events, but stopped short of ordering a full lockdown. Health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said: “We’re taking these measures precisely because we want to prevent that lockdown.”
In Austria, restaurants will close early from December 27 and stricter entry requirements have been announced for people from countries where the variant is already dominant, including the UK and the Netherlands.
In Sweden, from Thursday new rules include a limit of 50 people at private gatherings and the need for a vaccination pass for public events where there are more than 500 people.
The number of customers in shops will be limited, and restaurants will be able to serve only seated guests.
Europe was earlier this week told to brace for a wave of Omicron cases over the winter as the World Health Organisation said: “We can see another storm coming.”
Spain will return to wearing face masks outdoors as part of a package of measures, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said.
A booster vaccination programme is also picking up speed among the population where about 80 per cent have been inoculated.
Catalonia has already announced it will impose a curfew, shut night clubs, limit gatherings and cut restaurant occupancy to stem a surge in case numbers in the region, which includes Barcelona.
In Germany, the head of the Robert Koch Institute for disease control said the Omicron variant could be the dominant form of the virus by mid-January.
Lothar Wieler expects a recent decline in new coronavirus infections in the country to be reversed as Omicron cases rapidly spread.
Mr Wieler said there was an infection wave of “unseen momentum” threatening to overwhelm the healthcare system.
“In the past few days, the number of cases has been declining, but unfortunately, this is not a sign of easing," he said. "We need to get the still very high case numbers down."
Katharina Reich, co-leader of Austria's new Covid crisis team, described the Omicron variant as "the next epidemiological challenge".
"What we do know is that Omicron is fast and we need to react quickly.”
Countries are racing to distribute booster shots in the hope that they will prevent the need for damaging lockdowns.
However, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said boosters would only prolong the wait for developing countries to hand out first and second doses, giving the virus more chance to mutate.
Only half of WHO member states have reached the end-of-year target of vaccinating 40 per cent of their populations, but the target could have been reached if doses were more equally shared, Dr Tedros said.
“No country can boost its way out of the pandemic. Boosters cannot be seen as a ticket to go ahead with the planned celebrations without the need for other precautions.”
The spread of Omicron has overshadowed preparations for Christmas for a second year running, with politicians warning of public fatigue over restrictions.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he sympathised with people who “don’t want to hear another word about variants and mutations” at Christmas.
But, he said, Germany could not turn a blind eye to the crisis, after his government agreed to a package of new restrictions with the country’s 16 states.
Private gatherings will be limited to 10 people from December 28, including for the vaccinated, and traditional New Year fireworks will be banned.
“This is no the time for parties and cosy evenings with lots of people,” Mr Scholz said.
Portugal is imposing new measures despite being one of the world’s most vaccinated countries, with 87 per cent of people having had two doses.
A negative test will be needed to enter cinemas, theatres, sports events and weddings until January 9, while outdoor New Year gatherings will be limited to 10 people.
Finland made its move on Tuesday by ordering early closures for hospitality venues on Christmas Eve. EU citizens will be required to show a negative test at the Finnish border.
Opening hours will be limited into January after the Nordic nation reached an all-time infection peak, with 23,000 new cases in the past two weeks.
“We must take this situation seriously and react accordingly,” said Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin.
In France, no new restrictions are planned for the time being, but ministers are not ruling them out, with case numbers expected to rise as high as 100,000 a day.
Health Minister Olivier Veran said Omicron would be dominant in France by early January. Paris has cancelled its New Year celebrations.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Tuesday that there would be no further Christmas restrictions in England, although he urged people to take a test before visiting elderly relatives.
Ministers are keeping people in suspense about possible New Year measures as they examine the severity of Omicron and its effect on hospital admissions.
“We’re going to keep a constant eye on the data and do whatever it takes to protect public health,” Mr Johnson said.