Britain will welcome the dawn of 2022 in “incomparably better” shape than a year ago, despite setbacks in its quest to defeat the pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday.
Mr Johnson said the vaccine and booster campaign was the main reason that New Year’s Eve parties could go ahead in England, despite soaring infections with the Omicron coronavirus variant.
Although ministers ruled out new restrictions in England before the New Year, they have not ruled out acting early in 2022 if the position deteriorates.
The UK announced a record 189,213 new cases on Thursday, with the surge causing a scramble for testing kits.
In a New Year’s Eve message, Mr Johnson acknowledged public anxiety about Omicron, rising hospital admissions and the “challenges that fate continues to throw in our way”.
But “we can say one thing with certainty – our position this December 31 is incomparably better than last year”, when the country was about to enter a strict three-month lockdown, he said.
The current lack of restrictions is possible because “the British people have responded heroically, voluntarily, and in almost incredible numbers to the call to get vaccinated”, Mr Johnson said.
Almost half of the population has had a booster shot.
“It’s precisely because of that huge national effort that we can celebrate tonight at all,” said Mr Johnson.
However, the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have broken with Mr Johnson by imposing restrictions – mirroring similar moves in much of Europe.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called for solidarity as the health crisis overshadows his new government’s first weeks in office. New Year's Eve gatherings are restricted and the sale of fireworks is banned.
He made a plea to vaccine sceptics to look at the evidence from four billion people who have been immunised worldwide, with serious side-effects extremely rare.
It echoed remarks by Mr Johnson that unvaccinated people should make it their New Year’s resolution to get a shot.
Vaccines are “the path out of the pandemic,” said Mr Scholz. “Now it’s about speed. We need to be faster than the virus.
“Let’s pull together to do everything – and I really mean everything – to defeat coronavirus in the new year.”
Mr Scholz told Germans that “we are embarking on a new era – an era that will be good if we actively shape it”, as his government prepares to take on far-reaching economic and environmental reforms.
Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin said people had experienced "both light and darkness" in 2021 as vaccines pointed the way out of lockdown but the pandemic did not come to a standstill.
She said society's resilience would be put to the test as the pandemic drags into a third year, with "major risks and uncertainties" over how the crisis would develop.
"The whole government and I will do everything in our power to ensure that the bright days outnumber the dark ones," she said.
Across the world, the Omicron crisis has foiled hopes that the dark days of Covid restrictions were a thing of the past – with the head of the World Health Organisation blaming vaccine hoarding for the rise of the new strain.
Fewer than 10 per cent of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated, compared to large majorities in wealthy Europe and North America.
“Narrow nationalism” by some countries created the “ideal conditions for the emergence of the Omicron variant”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Nonetheless, efforts to distribute vaccines, tests and treatments around the world mean that 2022 could be “the year we end it – but only if we do it together”, he said.