Lockdowns spread across Europe in the face of Omicron’s ‘lightning’ advance

December 20, 2021, 12:35 PM UTC

The markets entered Monday firmly in the red, with one of the big reasons being the reimposition of lockdowns and pandemic restrictions across various European countries, as the Omicron COVID variant rapidly advances.

The Netherlands’ snap lockdown is the biggest news. It was announced Saturday, began Sunday, and it involves the closure of nonessential shops and services, including hospitality venues, gyms, cinemas, and museums. Click-and-collect retail is still allowed, as are takeout meals. Only two people aged 13 or older are allowed to visit other people’s homes, or four on December 24 to 26.

The Dutch COVID lockdown will last until at least two weeks into the new year. Announcing the lockdown, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he was in a “somber mood, and a lot of people watching [this speech] will feel that way too.”

The move comes days after the government in Denmark also announced the closure of cinemas, theaters, and other public venues, although Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen ruled out a wider lockdown on the basis that the country is highly vaccinated. Epidemiologists expect the next month to be the “hardest” yet for Denmark, which recorded over 2,500 Omicron infections in one day at the end of last week.

“Find other ways to celebrate

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is still a minor player in the Netherlands, compared to the entrenched Delta strain, but the government estimates it is spreading twice as fast in the Netherlands as Delta did last summer and hopes the lockdown will stop the health service from being overwhelmed next month. The World Health Organization estimates a doubling time of 1.5 to three days for Omicron case numbers in countries where the variant is spreading within the community.

In neighboring Belgium, which was until recently emerging from a severe COVID wave, Omicron reached a 10% share of all new infections (which number around 10,000 a day) on Friday, up from 6% just the day before. The Belgian government will consider new measures on Wednesday, which may disappoint people looking to escape the Dutch lockdown by visiting Belgium for their Christmas shopping. Belgium has seen some of Europe’s fiercest protests against lockdown measures.

Continuing southward, France will have to do without the traditional spectacle of fireworks over the Parisian skyline and DJ sets along the Champs Élysées, after the capital’s authorities heeded the warnings of scientific advisers. France has also imposed tough restrictions on people visiting from the U.K., due to that country’s Omicron explosion. Germany followed France’s lead in that respect on Saturday—but also slapped the same restrictions on people entering from France itself (and from Denmark and Norway).

“The fifth wave is here and it is here in full force,” French Prime Minister Jean Castex said Friday, describing Omicron’s spread as being like “lightning.” French Health Minister Olivier Véran said Saturday that Omicron was already behind a tenth of new confirmed cases. However, the French government is for now not introducing a new lockdown; instead, it has asked people to avoid large gatherings and limit Christmas visits.

“I’m appealing to everyone’s responsibility to find other ways to celebrate than large gatherings, and avoiding moments of conviviality,” Castex said.

Targeted restrictions

Germany doesn’t appear to be heading for a new lockdown, although (as in Austria) it won’t allow unvaccinated people into restaurants or nonessential shops and facilities—a targeted lockdown, in effect. Italy has also introduced restrictions on the unvaccinated, and France is preparing to take a similar route early next year. Austria, meanwhile, will temporarily lift those restrictions on unvaccinated people for the three days around Christmas.

Karl Lauterbach, Germany’s new health minister, said Sunday that a “hard lockdown” ahead of Christmas was out of the question. His solution to Omicron’s spread is an acceleration of the German booster campaign, although he recently said the previous government—which handed over the reins less than two weeks ago—had not ordered enough boosters to meet his targets.

The markets have also been digesting Sunday reports from Italy that suggest the government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi is preparing to introduce new measures that will see even vaccinated people forced to show negative test results when they want to access stadiums, clubs, and theaters. Masks may also be made compulsory even for outdoors. So far, Italy has fewer than 100 confirmed Omicron cases.

Spain has ruled out new restrictions (apart from those on travel from countries such as the U.K.) in the face of the new variant, with Health Minister Carolina Darias saying at the start of the month that lockdowns were “a thing of the past.” That said, the Spanish infection rate crossed the government’s “very high risk” threshold on Friday. Meanwhile, officials in Portugal said Friday that Omicron accounts for two in 10 infections there. “It may be of 50% in the Christmas week and 80% in the last week of the year,” said Health Minister Marta Temido, who did not announce new restrictions but also did not rule them out.

British isles

Over in the U.K., the question of whether to impose new restrictions comes against a fraught political backdrop. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s position is looking shakier by the day, as further details continuously emerge about he and other ministers secretly partying during previous lockdowns. A recent government corruption scandal also opened the door for the Liberal Democrats (the U.K.’s third major party) to seize a seat from Johnson’s Conservative Party. Many Conservative lawmakers rebelled last week against legislation that will introduce COVID passes to England. They strongly oppose a new lockdown, and Johnson’s potential attempt to introduce one may prove to be the straw that breaks the back of his premiership.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the U.K. has become the world’s Omicron epicenter, with more than 12,000 new cases reported Sunday; Saturday’s tally was a shade above 10,000. The country’s health experts estimate hundreds of thousands of new Omicron infections each day and have called for “more stringent” measures to be brought in very soon to save the health system from being overloaded by as many as 3,000 new hospitalizations each day in England alone.

The Times of London reported on the weekend that Johnson’s administration was drawing up plans to ban indoor meetups for two weeks after Christmas, as a “circuit breaker.” The government has not ruled out introducing new restrictions before Christmas.

But in Ireland next door, new COVID restrictions came into effect on Monday morning. As announced on Friday—with Prime Minister Micheál Martin warning that Omicron would produce “infections at a rate that is far in excess of anything we have seen to date”—restaurants and bars now have to close at 8 p.m. The government’s pandemic advisers had been pushing for 5 p.m., but the government feared the impact on the hospitality sector.

Omicron is already the most prevalent variant in Ireland, with authorities estimating on the weekend that it accounted for 52% of reported cases. “It has taken less than two weeks for Omicron to become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in Ireland, revealing just how transmissible this variant is,” said Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan on Sunday.

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