Omicron marches through Europe

France and Italy both report a record number of daily new cases

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New figures indicate Europe is on the cusp of a massive wave of Omicron infections, with case numbers beginning to rise sharply.

While Britain’s rate has surged ahead in the past week, the new Covid-19 variant has only just started to sweep through much of Western Europe.

Italy, Denmark and Spain have all seen more than 40 per cent increases in the last seven days, while France's cases have increased by 21 per cent.

France and Italy both reported a record number of daily new cases on Friday, 94,124 and 50,599 respectively.

People walk along La Rambla in downtown Barcelona, Spain. The country is reporting almost 700 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. AP Photo

In mid-December, with some countries imposing lockdown restrictions to counter the Delta variant, numbers were decreasing by 10 per cent, but Europe-wide they have grown by 13 per cent to 2.87 million infections in the last week, according to Worldometer statistics.

But it is hoped that with the latest British research showing Omicron is likely to be milder than Delta the high numbers will not lead to health services being overwhelmed.

The UK’s Health Security Agency chief Jenny Harries said the findings offered a “glimmer of Christmas hope”.

But she warned that more information was needed, particularly on the impact on elderly and more vulnerable patients.

“It definitely isn’t yet at the point where we could downgrade that serious threat,” she told the BBC.

The UKHSA estimates that someone infected with Omicron is up to 45 per cent less likely to seek emergency hospital care and up to 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital than someone with the Delta variant.

“What we have got now is a really fine balance between something that looks like a lower risk of hospitalisation – which is great news – but equally a highly transmissible variant and one that we know evades some of our immune defences, so it is a very balanced position,” Dr Harries said.

She said more information on Omicron was still needed to understand how much of a risk it poses to the health service.

People wait in line in a Covid-19 testing station in Lisbon, Portugal, which is experiencing a surge in Omicron cases even though 87 per cent of the population is vaccinated. EPA

“We don’t yet know what the average length of stay for an individual is in a hospital,” she said. “We’re not seeing very significant rises in intensive care utilisation or in the use of ventilation beds.”

Figures for Covid hospital admissions in London, the epicentre of the UK Omicron outbreak, show admissions increased by just 3 per cent on Thursday, compared with a rise of 9 per cent on Monday.

While infections numbers might be peaking it will only become clear in about two weeks’ time if hospital admissions shoot up.

Given a lack of support for further lockdown measures from his own Conservative Party MPs, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has been politically damaged in the last two months by various issues, will be hoping for the best.

In a Christmas message to the nation, Mr Johnson said this Christmas would be “significantly better than the last”, but urged people to get vaccine booster shots.

Many vaccination centres will remain open on Christmas Day and the Boxing Day holiday on December 26 to continue Britain’s third-dose campaign.

Updated: December 25, 2021, 12:16 PM