A string of European countries recorded their highest ever number of Covid-19 cases in the week after Christmas as the highly-infectious Omicron strain caused an unprecedented surge that threatens the ability of health services to cope.
Britain, Cyprus, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Malta all set new national records for positive daily Covid-19 tests this week. The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that infections would rise further to reach eight million daily cases in Europe and Asia at the end of January, double the current level.
"Such sheer magnitude is unequalled in this pandemic and is overwhelming testing and tracing systems as well as putting intense pressure on health workers," warned WHO's regional director for Europe Hans Kluge.
The rise in infections is primarily due to the spread of Omicron among younger adults in the European region, according to Dr Kluge, who recommended that governments should prioritise contact tracing if their testing systems are overwhelmed.
Vaccines, masks, ventilation, and Covid-19 medicines are now “more important than ever before to reduce disease severity, mortality and the burden on health care services”, he urged.
France set a new record for daily cases in Europe by confirming 208,000 cases in 24 hours on Wednesday, followed by 206,000 on Thursday, in a surge of infections health minister Olivier Véran described as “dizzying”.
“We have never experienced such a situation,” Mr Véran told lawmakers. “Given the numbers we have been seeing these past few days, we’re talking about a landslide.”
The Paris regional health authority warned of a “very worrying” situation and appealed for hospitals to postpone as many appointments as possible to ensure there are adequate beds and staff to cope with an expected influx of Covid-19 patients, local media reported.
The French government earlier this week imposed a mandatory work-from-home requirement of at least three days a week for those who can, as well as limits on public gatherings and a ban on the consumption of food and drink in public transport, cinemas, theatres and sports venues.
Italy also recorded a new record in cases, with the nation of 60 million reporting 126,888 infections on Thursday, while 156 people died, 10,866 were in ordinary hospital beds and 1,226 in intensive care.
The Rome government tightened restrictions ahead of the festive season, by shutting discos and nightclubs until the end of January, imposing an outdoor mask mandate and requiring proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19 to access restaurants, bars, cinemas, concerts, theatres and sports stadiums.
High-filtering FFP2 masks are obligatory in crowded settings like public transport and cinemas, and the consumption of food and drink in such settings is banned. Regional affairs minister Mariastella Gelmini warned in an interview with local media that unless infections fell, new restrictions would be needed "above all for the unvaccinated, since they are the ones who occupy the intensive care units".
Greece banned music in venues and prohibited Christmas and new year festivities in public places in an attempt to curb the spread of Omicron, while setting a midnight curfew for bars and restaurants and mandating high-grade masks like FFP2s in crowded places like supermarkets and on public transport.
"These measures, if they are applied in our entirety, will allow us from mid-January to go back to our normal lives," health minister Thanos Plevris told a news conference.
Belgian theatres and cultural venues this week won an initial legal fight against a government closure order, which had been imposed in a bid to slow the spread of Omicron as health experts warned of an incoming wave.
In Germany, health minister Karl Lauterbach told media that due to holiday season under-reporting, true Covid-19 infections were likely to be two or three times the recorded figures of 70,000 on Wednesday and 42,000 on Thursday.
Like Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece reduced isolation requirements, partly to cope with staff shortages due to the prevalence of the disease.
Austria extended a stay-at-home order for the unvaccinated until January 10th – with an exception for New Year's Eve. Tough restrictions remained in force in the Netherlands, which shut non-essential shops, restaurants, bars, cinemas, museums and theatres and closed schools until January 9th to counter the Omicron surge.
Countries in the east of Europe, where vaccination rates are lower, are bracing for the Omicron wave to hit them next. Mortality rates already suggest they are already suffering a disproportionate number of deaths from the disease.
In Poland, where 55 per cent of its population of 38 million are fully vaccinated, 794 people died from the disease on Wednesday and 708 on Thursday. More than 75 per cent of those who died were unvaccinated, deputy health minister Waldemar Kraska told local television.
In Russia, where roughly half the population is vaccinated, state statistics agency Rosstat reported 87,527 deaths related to Covid-19 in November, the deadliest month since the start of the pandemic.