Germany introduces Omicron restrictions for New Year

New measures under discussion across Europe to stop wave of coronavirus

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Germany announced new coronavirus restrictions on Tuesday that will begin after Christmas to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

“I can understand anyone who doesn’t want to hear about the coronavirus, mutations and new virus variants, but we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to this next wave,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.

Across Europe, countries are introducing tightened restrictions, from the Netherlands; where there is a new lockdown in effect, to England, which has only enhanced levels of existing Covid-19 rules.

“This is no longer the time for parties and social evenings in big groups,” Mr Scholz added.

Among the new rules are limits on private gatherings to 10 people, closing all nightclubs and having large events such as football matches held without spectators.

The restrictions will go into effect nationally on December 28, although regional states can enact measures sooner.

Mr Scholz said family-focused holidays such as Christmas “have not proven to be major drivers of the pandemic”.

He said restrictions on New Year’s celebrations were necessary to keep Germany’s health system from being overwhelmed by coronavirus cases.

Sweden, which has been sceptical of lockdowns since the start of the pandemic, announced measures on Tuesday including table service at indoor venues, a cap of 50 people at private gatherings and a recommendation for everyone able to work from home to do so.

“I understand that many are tired of this. So am I,” said Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson. “But now we have a new virus variant, which means we are in a new situation.”

While cases of the previously prevailing Delta variant are falling in Germany, scientists expect Omicron to become dominant in weeks.

An accelerated booster campaign has covered almost a third of Germany’s population. But about 13 million people have not yet had their first two doses.

The EU moved to firm up its booster programme on Tuesday by setting a nine-month expiry date for vaccine passports that rely on only two doses.

After that, citizens of the bloc’s member states will have to have a booster or their Digital Covid Certificate will no longer be valid. It can also be acquired with proof of a negative test result or of recovery from Covid-19.

No time limit is set for the validity of booster vaccines, because the duration of protection they offer is not yet known.

“The strength and success of this invaluable tool for citizens and business lies in its coherent use across the EU,” said the bloc’s health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides.

“What is needed now is to ensure that booster campaigns proceed as quickly as possible.”

The EU’s drug regulator approved a fifth vaccine, Novavax, on Monday. The US company uses more traditional technology than its rivals, raising hopes this could make it popular among sceptics.

Regulators said it was not yet clear whether vaccines would have to be tweaked to fight Omicron more effectively.

“There is no answer on whether we will need to adapt vaccines,” said European Medicines Agency director Emer Cooke.

European governments are facing protests and public fatigue almost two years after the first lockdowns began.

On Tuesday, France delayed the introduction of new measures, with government spokesman Gabriel Attal citing a faster-than-expected booster campaign.

Extended school holidays are not on the table – and the date of the April presidential election is not in question – but other measures could be considered, Mr Attal told French television.

“If we think the risks have risen, we could take another look. Nothing is excluded in principle,” he said.

England is similarly biding its time after a Cabinet meeting on Monday ended without a verdict on whether to bring in new restrictions.

It leaves little time for any new measures before Christmas, but there is speculation that Prime Minister Boris Johnson could order restrictions from next week.

Denmark said Omicron had become the dominant variant in the country.

In Greece, all citizens will be given free tests during the holiday season. Athens also plans to review opening hours for cafes and restaurants in the early weeks of next year.

Updated: December 22, 2021, 1:38 AM
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