With Christmas hanging in the balance, nations consider omicron uplift in UK

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Commuters, some wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19, walk to Westminster Underground station in central London on Monday, December 20, 2021. The UK Health Secretary refused to rule out the imposition tighter COVID-19 restrictions before Christmas amid rapidly rising infections and lingering uncertainty over the omicron variant. (Victoria Jones / PA via AP)

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Britain’s leading nurses union warned on Monday that the exhaustion and increase in coronavirus cases among medical staff was pushing them to breaking point, adding pressure on the government for further restrictions to curb the record number of infections caused by the omicron variant.

The warning highlights the unpleasant choice facing Prime Minister Boris Johnson: to fail vacation plans for millions of people for the second year in a row, or to face a potential tidal wave of cases and cases. disturbances.

Many governments in Europe and the United States face similar dilemmas over how difficult it is to cope with omicron, which appears to be more transmissible than the previous delta variant which itself has led to outbreaks in many regions. of the world. Early evidence suggests that omicron may also produce less severe disease – although scientists warn it’s too early to tell – and that it may better escape vaccine protection.

Even though it’s milder, the new variant could still overwhelm healthcare systems due to the sheer number of infections. Confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the UK increased by 50% in one week as omicron overtook the delta as the dominant variant.

Patricia Marquis, England director of the Royal College of Nursing union, said the situation over the next few weeks looks “very grim” as increasing sickness absences and self-isolation hit hospitals which are already struggling to overcome. clear a backlog of postponed procedures and treat winter illnesses normally alongside coronavirus cases.

“In many places they are already under immense stress and pressure, and so they are starting to fall ill themselves with COVID, but also mental and physical exhaustion,” she told the BBC. “So the staff are now looking forward thinking, ‘Oh my God, what’s coming up? “”

The British Medical Association has warned that nearly 50,000 doctors, nurses and other National Health Service staff in England could be sick with COVID-19 by Christmas Day, unless additional restrictions are introduced.

But many political leaders are reluctant to impose the strict measures they resorted to earlier in the pandemic – often because they promised their people that vaccines would offer a way out of such restrictions and that it can be politically. untenable to impose them again.

In the United States, the prospect of a winter chilled by a wave of coronavirus infections is a serious reversal from the optimism projected by President Joe Biden about 10 months ago, when he suggested that the country would have essentially returned to normal by Christmas. France is desperately trying to avoid a new lockdown that would hurt the economy and darken President Emmanuel Macron’s expected re-election campaign.

Briton Johnson, whose authority has been hammered by weeks of political scandals, is caught between calls from science advisers for new limits on social interactions and fierce opposition within his Conservative party to such restrictions.

Earlier this month, Johnson’s government reinstated rules requiring face masks in stores and ordered people to show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test before entering nightclubs and the like crowded places.

The government is hoping that the vaccine boosts will provide more protection against omicron, as the data suggests, and has set a goal of providing everyone 18 and over with an additional injection by the end of December. More than 900,000 booster shots were given on Sunday, as football stadiums, shopping malls and cathedrals were turned into temporary vaccination clinics.

U.S. vaccine maker Moderna said Monday that a lab test suggested that a booster dose of its vaccine should provide protection against omicron. Pfizer’s tests also found that a boost triggered a big jump in anti-omicron antibodies.

But many scientists say boosters aren’t enough and harder action is needed.

Ahead of a UK Cabinet meeting on COVID-19 on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said on Monday he could not “make firm and swift guarantees” that new restrictions would not be announced this week.

Government ministers are discussing several options, ranging from non-binding guidelines for people to limit festive gatherings, to mandatory social distancing and curfews for bars and restaurants.

The speed of omicron’s spread in the UK, where cases of the variant are doubling roughly every other day, is decimating the economy during the busy pre-Christmas period.

Usually, bustling theaters and restaurants are affected by cancellations. Some restaurants and pubs have closed until after the holidays because many employees are sick or self-isolating. The Natural History Museum, one of London’s top attractions, said on Monday it was closing for a week due to “a lack of indoor staff.”

Other countries are watching with suspicion the UK, which on Sunday reported 82,886 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases in one day, close to the record set last week.

The Dutch government began a strict national lockdown on Sunday to curb the sharp rise in infections. The World Economic Forum, meanwhile, said on Monday it was again postponing its annual meeting of world leaders, business leaders and other elites in Davos, Switzerland, due to uncertainty over the ‘omicron.

But many European leaders have opted for something less.

France and Germany have banned entry to most British travelers, and the Paris government has also banned public concerts and fireworks during New Year’s celebrations. Ireland has imposed a cover-up. 8 p.m. fire in pubs and bars and limited participation in indoor and outdoor events.

Portugal tells most non-essential workers to work from home for a week in January, while Greece will have 10,000 police officers on duty during the holidays to carry out COVID pass checks.

In Spain, the national average of new cases is double what it was a year ago. But the authorities in the country with one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe are betting mainly on the compulsory wearing of the mask indoors and the deployment of booster vaccines, without any other restrictions in progress.

Miguel Hernán, an epidemiologist at Harvard University who advised the Spanish government earlier in the pandemic, said the reluctance to impose new restrictions was understandable, but warned that it was better to act sooner than later.

“The earlier they are applied, the shorter the time needed,” he said.

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said on Sunday that there would be no lockdown until Christmas, but warned: “We will have a fifth wave”.

Hendrik Wuest, governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, said more restrictions could be on the horizon soon after Christmas.

“I don’t think any big New Years parties can take place this year – unfortunately, once again,” he added. “Omicron will not forgive us for negligence if we are not careful. “

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Associated Press editors Geir Moulson in Berlin, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Barry Hatton in Lisbon and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed to this story.

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Follow all of AP’s stories about the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.

Edward K. Thompson