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European countries are taking wildly different approaches to Omicron’s surge as WHO makes ominous prediction

January 11, 2022, 9:22 PM UTC

The highly transmissible Omicron variant is wreaking havoc across the globe, with many countries shattering records for daily positive cases.

On Tuesday, a World Health Organization official warned that if current trends hold, more than half the population in all of Europe may be infected by the Omicron variant in the next two months.

To combat the recent wave, countries have responded in a myriad of ways. Some have reimposed tighter social distancing or returned to lockdowns. Others, citing highly vaccinated populations and evidence suggesting Omicron produces a less severe reaction, haven’t done much.

Here’s a look at how five major European countries have responded.

Spain

On Monday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez became the first leader of a major European country to call on the European Union to debate treating COVID-19 as an endemic illness, like the flu.

“The situation is not what we faced a year ago,” Sánchez said in a radio interview with Spain’s Cadena SER. “I think we have to evaluate the evolution of COVID to an endemic illness, from the pandemic we have faced up until now.”

Spain is among the world’s most vaccinated countries against COVID with 90.4% of the population over age 11 having been fully vaccinated, and 85.3% of those over 60 having received a booster shot. As a result, the COVID fatality rate is currently at 1%, down from 13% during the early stages of the first wave, which Sánchez cited in saying it’s time to respond to the coronavirus with “new instruments.” For example, Spain recently bought 344,000 doses of Pfizer’s antiviral pill Paxlovid

Italy

As it grapples with a spike in Omicron infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, the Italian government announced last week that all Italians 50 and older must be vaccinated against COVID-19. 

“We want to slow down the growth of the contagion curve and push Italians who still aren’t vaccinated to do so,” Prime Minister Mario Draghi said during a cabinet meeting on Tuesday. “We are acting in particular on age groups that are most at risk of hospitalization, to reduce pressure on hospitals and save lives.”

On Monday, Italy reported over 100,000 new positive cases, and daily coronavirus-related deaths rose to 227, up from 157 the day before. And while the levels remain lower than those of spring 2020, one in five hospital beds in the country was occupied by a COVID patient following the holidays. 

The most recent vaccine mandate for people over 50 is the latest in a series of strict measures designed to restrict daily life for those who remain unvaccinated. In August, the government introduced the Green Pass, state-issued proof of vaccination that is required to enter most places in the country, including workplaces, movie theaters, museums, and restaurants. 

Italy has battled vaccine hesitancy since vaccines were introduced in early 2021, prompting a series of strict government measures. In September, the country became the first in Europe to require COVID passports in order to return to work.

France

Like Italy, France has adopted strict measures to force a hesitant population to be vaccinated.

Beginning Jan. 15, everyone over 18 must prove they are fully vaccinated in order to gain entry into restaurants, bars, cinemas, concert venues, and many other public places. The measure, which passed the National Assembly by a vote of 214 to 93, replaces the prior vaccine laws in place since July that gave citizens the choice to be vaccinated or take frequent COVID-19 tests.

The new French laws, which are the strictest to date, came just a day after President Emmanuel Macron said he intended to “piss off” the 10% of adults in France who have refused COVID-19 vaccinations “to the end.”

On Tuesday, France’s health ministry will reportedly announce the country has recorded a new daily high of more than 350,000 new COVID infections over a 24-hour period.

Germany

In early December, when the German health care system once again became flooded with COVID patients, the German Medical Association publicly urged the government to “immediately” require all adults to get vaccinated and to impose “extensive contact restrictions” on the unvaccinated. 

Shortly before being installed, new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz signaled his support for a nationwide vaccine mandate, and hinted it would take effect as early as February or March. This week, that date was pushed back to May or June, owing to a mix of factors, including legislative timetables and technical considerations such as the development and implementation of a nationwide vaccine register.

Still, a vaccination requirement is coming, though it’s unlikely to arrive in time to curb the impact of Omicron. Germany is currently averaging 44,508 cases daily—an increase of 61% from two weeks ago, according to the New York Times

United Kingdom

In England, Omicron has fueled the biggest surge in positive cases since the pandemic began. Although hospitalization rates for COVID patients are increasing, they remain lower than in previous waves.

As a result, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced last week that while hospitalization rates remained under control, there would be “no need” to enact tighter restrictions on daily life. Instead, England recently reduced the period that individuals with COVID-19 must self-isolate from 10 days to seven. 

Still, over 1.2 million people tested positive in the U.K. during the week ending Jan. 8, an 11% increase over the week before, and the number of coronavirus deaths—1,271—was up 38% from the prior week. 

Other parts of the U.K., like Wales and Scotland, have implemented tighter restrictions on large gatherings. Wales, for example, recently implemented social distancing requirements at theaters and cinemas, banned sporting events and other large gatherings, and forbade bars and restaurants from serving customers not seated at tables.

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