With every new Covid-19 variant, Europe grows more divided

Omicron is putting strain on the increasingly frayed tightrope politicians have to walk

Brussels (pictured) and other European capitals have seen waves of protest against public health measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. EPA

With the discovery of the new Omicron Covid-19 variant, the architects of the lockdowns that brought much of the world to a standstill have lost no time in seeking to impose a range of new measures designed to curb the spread of the virus.

In Europe, these have ranged from imposing new lockdowns, as has happened in Austria, to more modest precautions, such as those outlined by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this week, in which the wearing of face masks has become mandatory for people travelling on public transport and entering shops.

But with scientific opinion around the world deeply divided on the potential threat posed by the Omicron variant, there are mounting fears that the discovery could result in another phase of international lockdowns, with all the implications that could have for global recovery.

Industries that were worst affected by the lockdowns that were implemented last winter, such as travel and hospitality, have only just begun to show signs of recovery following the financial devastation they suffered during the past year.

But even though the measures imposed so far have yet to reach the drastic levels seen at the height of the last lockdown, there are mounting concerns that the emergence of the new variant could yet result in painful restrictions being put in place.

This is certainly the case as far as the US and Europe are concerned, with politicians on both sides of the Atlantic giving serious consideration to the introduction of new measures.

In the US, where travel restrictions to the country were only lifted earlier in the autumn, President Joe Biden's administration is preparing to require anyone entering the country to have proof of a negative test taken one day before their flight. This follows the discovery of the first Omicron case in the US: a person in California who had travelled from South Africa and has so far only developed mild symptoms.

The change could have an impact on tourism to the US because of concerns over the increased costs of having tests, as well as being able to have a negative test in time to board a flight. The effects on the tourism and aviation sectors could be even more dramatic if the administration imposes seven-day quarantines for all incoming travellers, regardless of their vaccination status, measures that are said to be the subject of serious consideration in Washington.

A security worker in Amsterdam reminds travellers to wear a face mask at Schiphol airport on December 2, 2021. Getty
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Industries that were worst affected by last winter's lockdowns have only just begun to show signs of recovery

In Europe, meanwhile, most of the changes implemented so far have focused on the requirement for new Covid-19 tests. France has announced that all travellers from outside the EU will have to present a negative test that is less than 48 hours old, while Britain is requiring all arrivals to be tested within 48 hours of arrival.

Nevertheless, while scientists argue over whether existing vaccinations will be able to cope with the new Omicron variant, the prospect of more stringent measures being introduced cannot be discounted.

In Britain, health minister Gillian Keegan earlier this week raised the possibility that European countries could be added to the travel red list, which would require all arrivals to quarantine in a hotel at their own expense for 11 days. The Netherlands has had the highest number of cases in Europe so far. Such measures could also be expanded to other parts of the world – possibly including the Middle East – if a significant spike in the new variant were to emerge.

So far, 10 countries in and around South Africa have been put on Britain’s red list since the Omicron variant first emerged last week.

Apart from the economic implications of the proposed new measures, there are concerns that any attempt to impose new lockdowns could fuel public unrest as British citizens tire of measures that restrict their freedoms.

Protests have taken place on both sides of the Atlantic against restrictions on personal liberties, as well as calls from some political and business leaders that vaccines should be mandatory for certain key workers, such as medical and care staff.

Last month saw tens of thousands of people take to the streets in capitals throughout Europe to protest against new anti-Covid-19 measures. In the Belgian capital, Brussels, protesters threw fireworks at police officers, who intervened with teargas and water cannons. This followed protests in the Netherlands against new lockdown rules, where people hurled fireworks at police and set fire to bicycles in The Hague. This followed protests in Rotterdam that turned violent and saw police firing gunshots. Thousands of demonstrators have staged protests in Austria, Croatia and Italy.

But as politicians fret about the potential economic cost of new restrictions, the pressure for mandatory vaccinations is growing.

In this context, comments made earlier this week by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who called for member states to give serious consideration to introducing mandatory vaccinations, are likely to prove highly controversial.

Ms von der Leyen argued mandatory vaccinations could prove necessary because of the “highly contagious” nature of the Omicron variant.

A former medical doctor, Ms von der Leyen argued that mandatory immunisations should be given serious thought because of the worryingly low take-up across the bloc, which still has an estimated 150 million people who have not been vaccinated against the disease.

“We have the vaccines, the life-saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere,” she commented at a press conference earlier this week. “If you look at the numbers, we now have 77 per cent of the adults in the EU vaccinated or, if you take the whole population, it’s 66 per cent. And this means one third of the European population is not vaccinated.”

The only glimmer of hope in this otherwise depressing landscape is recent research conducted in Israel that suggests current vaccination measures will be sufficient to tackle the Omicron variant.

Nitzan Horowitz, the country's health minister, said that there was “room for optimism that the current range of vaccines worked on Omicron based on 'initial indications'". So, if the Israeli predictions prove correct, then the need for the imposition of new restrictive measures will not be necessary, and the world can breathe a sigh of relief that it will not have to suffer the painful consequences of yet another global lockdown.

Published: December 2nd 2021, 2:00 PM
Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National