France has registered a national and European record for new coronavirus infections as the Omicron variant fuels a surge in cases across the continent, with multiple countries hitting new highs.
France reported 208,000 cases in the previous 24 hours, up from its previous record of almost 180,000 set the day before.
“This means that 24 hours a day, day and night, every second in our country, two French people are diagnosed positive for the coronavirus,” said the health minister, Olivier Veran. “We have never experienced such a situation,” he said, calling the increase “dizzying”.
He said the situation in France’s hospitals was already worrying because of the Delta variant. Although the “massive wave” of Omicron cases had yet to have an impact on the healthcare system, he said it would inevitably do so eventually.
The UK, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Greece have all reported new case records this week, while beyond Europe the rolling seven-day average of new cases in the US hit a high of 267,000 on Tuesday, with Omicron accounting for 59 per cent of these.
New infections in Australia rose to nearly 18,300 on Wednesday, eclipsing the previous high of about 11,300 hit a day earlier. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said the country needed “a gear change”.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said the simultaneous circulation of the Delta and Omicron variants was driving an alarming wave of infections that could lead to increases in hospitalisation and deaths.
Its director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he was “highly concerned that Omicron, spreading at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases”. The WHO has said Omicron poses a “very high” risk and could submerge health systems.
It noted that a decline in case incidence had been seen in South Africa, and that early data from that country, the UK and Denmark suggested a reduced risk of hospital admission with Omicron, but said that more data was needed.
The WHO’s emergencies chief Dr Michael Ryan underlined that note of caution.
He said it would be important in coming weeks to “suppress transmission of both variants to the minimum that we can”.
Dr Ryan said Omicron infections began largely among young people, “but what we haven’t seen is the Omicron wave fully established in the broader population. And I’m a little nervous to make positive predictions until we see how well the vaccine protection is going to work in those older and more vulnerable populations”.
WHO officials did not offer specific comments on decisions by the US and other countries to reduce self-isolation periods.
Dr Ryan said “these are judgment calls that countries make” – taking into account scientific, economic and other factors.
He noted that the average incubation period to date has been around five to six days.
“We need to be careful about changing tactics and strategies immediately on the basis of what we’re seeing” about Omicron, Dr Ryan said.
Dr Tedros renewed longstanding warnings that “ending health inequity remains the key to ending the pandemic”.
He urged everyone to make a “new year’s resolution” to get behind a campaign to vaccinate 70 per cent of countries’ populations by the beginning of July.
He said that missing the target of getting 40 per cent of populations vaccinated this year “is not only a moral shame – it cost lives and provided the virus with opportunities to circulate unchecked and mutate”.
Countries largely missed the target because of limited supply to low-income countries for most of the year and then vaccines arriving close to their expiry date, without things such as syringes, he said.
“I still remain optimistic that this can be the year we can not only end the acute stage of the pandemic, but we also chart a path to stronger health security,” Dr Tedros said.
The rapid transmission rate of the new variant is forcing governments to find a delicate balance between reimposing restrictions to protect hospitals and keeping economies and societies open.
French MPs on Wednesday started debating a new law that would allow only vaccinated people to enter bars, restaurants, cinemas, museums, sports arenas and other public venues, with proof of a negative Covid test no longer to be accepted.
In Italy, where private and public sector workers need a “green pass” proving vaccination, recovery or a negative test to enter the workplace, the government is also considering a proposal to exclude those who can only show a negative test.
Regional leaders are also urging the Italian government to drop or reduce the isolation period for people who have received three shots of a Covid vaccine and are subsequently exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus.
“We can’t block the country by quarantining the contacts of people who test positive. Covid has changed, the majority of the population is vaccinated, we must also revisit the measures to confront it,” said Giovanni Toti, the president of the Liguria region.
Italy is one of several countries to have cancelled or restricted public celebrations since the resurgence of the virus.
Greece, which has also banned Christmas and new year festivities in public places, on Wednesday imposed new restrictions on the hospitality sector, bringing forward measures planned for early January, after authorities announced a new daily record of 21,657 cases, more than double Monday’s figure.
Bars, nightclubs and restaurants will have to close at midnight, with no standing customers and no music, with the exception of New Year’s Eve when then can stay open until 2am. “These measures, if they are applied in our entirety, will allow us from mid-January to go back to our normal lives,” said the health minister, Thanos Plevris.
Some countries are still waiting for the Omicron wave to hit. Case numbers are still falling in Germany, but its health minister, Karl Lauterbach, said the true number could be much higher because fewer tests were being done over the holiday season.
He said the real incidence was “two or three times as high” as Wednesday’s reported rate of 205 Covid cases per 100,000 people over seven days, the lowest since November, adding that a sharp jump was expected “within a very short period of time”.
On Tuesday, Germany closed nightclubs and ordered organisers of sports events to hold them behind closed doors. It also limited private gatherings to 10 vaccinated people, or just two households if an unvaccinated person is present.
The rules came on top of restrictions already hitting the unvaccinated, who are barred from shops, restaurants and cultural events. Lauterbach said the rules may have to be toughened further, as existing measures “will not be enough to prevent a significant rise in Omicron cases”.
In Belgium, however, where case numbers are also relatively low, the government reversed course on Wednesday, allowing theatres and cinemas to reopen after a court suspended their closure. – Guardian/AP/Reuters