Are the risks of the Omikron variant of the coronavirus going well? Can political leaders therefore give the residents of their country a nice party at the turn of the year or should they act as strict schoolmasters to prevent emergencies in hospitals soon? Not only do policymakers in the Netherlands struggle with these questions, but also elsewhere in the world.
The Netherlands is certainly not the only country where the festivities have been put on the back burner as a precaution. In Germany, gatherings with more than ten vaccinated people will be banned from this Wednesday, both indoors and outdoors. Unvaccinated people are even only allowed to visit people with a maximum of two. The annual fireworks display at the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Berlin continues, but without an audience. It will be on TV.
In London, the traditional party in Trafalgar Square has been scrapped. “The safety of Londoners must come first,” said Mayor Sadiq Khan. No large fireworks will be organized on the Paris Champs-Élysées this year either. Italy, which has suffered record numbers of infections, also canceled its public festivities. In New York there is a party in Times Square, but only with a quarter of the normal number of visitors. They must also all have their vaccination certificate in their pocket and wear a mouth cap.
The WHO, the UN World Health Organization, warned this week against underestimating the rapidly emerging Omikron variant, even though some studies indicate that this usually makes patients less ill than the Delta variant. “Rapid growth of Omikron . . . even coupled with slightly milder disease will still result in high rates of hospitalization, especially among unvaccinated people, and cause widespread disruption to health systems and other critical services,” declared Catherine Smallwood, WHO’s Covid Manager for Europe Tuesday. Her boss, Tedros Ghebreyesus, even warned on Wednesday of “a tsunami of fallen” from the Delta and Omikron variants.
When considering what to do, different factors come into play for each country. The Netherlands has relatively few IC beds and only started boosting late. As a result, a lockdown was more likely. This applies less to Belgium, which has more IC beds and boosted faster. There, catering and shops remained open, albeit with restrictions.
Germany also has plenty of IC beds, but, like the Netherlands, did not lead the way with boosting. In addition, there are still many unvaccinated people. The number of infections in both Belgium and Germany appears to be declining at the moment, but this is expected to turn around soon. Denmark had many Omikron infections but refrained from a full lockdown in the hope that its high vaccination rate would provide sufficient protection.
France is also prepared to take more risks. Although it had a record new infections in recent days (Tuesday 179,000), with numbers not seen during the entire pandemic, the government limited itself this week to a series of not too strict measures. In addition, they will not come into effect until mid-January. Then only vaccinated people will have access to catering, cultural institutions and domestic flights with a so-called pass vaccinal. But the government considered a curfew for New Year’s Eve unnecessary. The French government hopes to stay ahead of the virus mainly through a quick booster campaign. In Paris, a mask obligation will apply from Friday outside.
France has a record number of infections, but will not intervene until January
groping in the dark
It is also difficult for policy makers that they do not have very reliable figures for the past few days, so that they are in the dark about the advance of Omikron in their country. For example, there was no reporting during the Christmas season, less official testing and the figures from the beginning of this week may have turned out higher than was actually the case due to delayed reports. The German Minister of Health, Karl Lauterbach complained about this.
Sometimes the politicians no longer need to be involved in decision-making at all and the advancing virus itself makes certain choices unavoidable. In London, the Museum of Natural History closed its doors because too many staff members had been killed by the Omikron variant. In New York, so many people canceled their reservations that many restaurants didn’t mind staying open for the next few days. Many performances on Broadway were therefore cancelled, or else because the actors were affected by the virus. In the US, this is referred to as a ‘soft lockdown’.
Ease quarantine requirements
Several countries, meanwhile, tried to give society and the economy some extra relief by easing quarantine requirements for people who had been around people who tested positive. In the US and the UK it is no longer necessary to spend ten days in solitary confinement, but only five and seven respectively. Italy and Spain are also considering such a step.
Portugal was an example not long ago because it had vaccinated almost all of its adult population. But here too Omikron is advancing so quickly that measures that were actually intended for the beginning of January have been brought forward by a week.
Bars and discos closed, restaurants were – at least on paper – only open to people who had recently tested negative. Restrictions were also imposed on shops. However, tourists in Lisbon report that in practice there is hardly any checking and that almost everything is open. The government also required people to work from home for two weeks. Schools will open a week later than planned.
In Spain, on the other hand, where record numbers of infections were also registered, the government hardly took any action. She did, however, make it compulsory to wear a face mask. In the Madrid region, restaurants and cafes remained open on the orders of the region’s populist president, but more restrictions were imposed in other regions.
Also read: Corona in Europe: how is the virus spreading?
For the time being, Eastern Europe mainly suffers from the Delta variant. In Poland, 754 Covid-19 deaths were reported on Tuesday, a record. Three quarters were unvaccinated. Many hundreds of corona deaths were also reported in Russia this week. The number of infections in Eastern Europe is nevertheless steadily decreasing. But it seems inevitable that that region will also have to fight with Omikron afterwards.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 30 December 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of December 30, 2021
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