Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron
France has set a staggering new record for coronavirus cases with 400,000 people testing positive in a single day, while Germany moved to toughen restrictions on Friday as as the Omicron variant takes hold across Europe.
The record high in France, which followed a lull in testing over the New Year weekend, was revealed in figures released on Thursday night.
They showed one in five people swabbed on Monday getting a positive result back - the highest positivity rate since mass screening began.
With the French government warning this week that infections were at “stratospheric levels” in some regions and showing no signs of falling, the record could be beaten again as test results from subsequent days come back.
Separate data showed Omicron accounting for almost 80 per cent of new cases in France. Monday’s total of 409,370 cases easily beat the previous record of 228,958 and included more than 100,000 in the Paris region alone.
Daily deaths have climbed to an average of more than 200 for the first time since May, but remain well below the pre-vaccination peaks of 2020 and 2021 – mirroring the pattern in countries such as Britain, Spain and Italy.
On Friday, the UK reported 178,250 new cases of the disease, meaning there have been more than 1,250,000 infections in the past seven days. British health authorities also reported 229 Covid-related deaths.
Health Minister Olivier Veran said this week that France had enough testing supplies to cope with the spike. One company, NG Biotech, has increased its production of Covid tests from 500,000 a month to more than 2.5 million.
France has moved to stave off disastrous labour shortages by cutting isolation to five days and allowing health workers with no symptoms to keep treating patients even if they test positive.
Debate over France’s Covid measures was dominated this week by President Emmanuel Macron’s provocative warning that he would keep pestering the unvaccinated until they get a shot.
Rules are due to go into effect on January 15 which would remove negative tests as an acceptable alternative to vaccination in France’s digital health pass. But the furore over Mr Macron’s comments led to parliamentary wrangling that could put this date into question.
Germany gets ready
Although cases are comparatively low in Germany at an average of 38,000 per day, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said numbers were expected to rise due to Omicron and lead to more people being admitted to hospital.
Mr Scholz announced tougher rules for bars and restaurants on Friday, adding a test requirement for people with two vaccine doses. Those with a booster shot will be exempt from testing, but unvaccinated people are shut out altogether.
The changes for the hospitality industry are necessary because there is little scope for people wearing masks when they are eating and drinking, said Mr Scholz after talks with Germany's 16 state premiers.
To head off mass staff shortages, people with a booster dose will be exempt from isolation if they are a close contact of a coronavirus patient. Others can end isolation after seven days, instead of 10, if they take a negative test.
A 10-person cap on private gatherings introduced last month will remain in place. Unvaccinated people can see only two others beyond their household.
"Although the situation is better than feared because of the measures we have taken, we know that the new Omicron variant will lead to infections increasing," said Mr Scholz.
"Omicron will keep us busy for a long time so we cannot sound the all-clear for our health system. There will be many new patients in hospitals."
A three-page submission by the government’s expert council said Germany could be vulnerable to the Omicron wave because of a relatively low rate of vaccination among older people.
The number of vaccine refusers aged 60 or over is higher than in Britain, Spain and other European countries, the panel said, in advice to ministers published on Thursday.
This could lead to a “greater burden on intensive care” despite the milder effects of the Omicron variant, it said.
German MPs are expected to start debating a possible vaccine mandate in the coming weeks. But protests against restrictions and compulsory shots have intensified across the country in recent days.
Italy, which is enduring a dramatic spike in infections, moved this week to make vaccines mandatory for over-50s.
Thursday saw more than 200,000 infections reported in Italy for the first time, taking the seven-day average to exactly 142,000.
In Switzerland, nuclear power plants are preparing to house employees on site if staff shortages become too dire, local media reported. It follows a similar move by an energy provider in Austria.
Cases in Austria have doubled in the space of a week, prompting Chancellor Karl Nehammer to announce that masks would become compulsory in crowded places outdoors.
“The regulation is very simple: whenever I meet people, I have to wear a mask,” Mr Nehammer said.
He said ministers would increase the pressure on companies to enforce rules that ban unvaccinated people from much of public life.
Across the EU, about 80 per cent of adults have been vaccinated, the European Commission said on Friday – a figure which masks significant regional differences.
“Our priority is still to increase vaccination rates across the EU,” the commission said.