Europe tightens restrictions amid new Covid wave

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Published on 2021-11-30 at 10:00 by Mikki Beru
Who would have thought that Covid-19 would strike back so brutally this year? November 2021 sounds like a sad reminder that the virus is still omnipresent. The recent discovery of the new Omicron variant is shaking the planet. Caught in its 5th wave, Europe is tightening health and sanitary restrictions. 

Return of border closures and quarantine

Will Omicron take the same path as the Delta variant? Since its discovery last Thursday in South Africa, cases have spread around the world: Israel, Belgium, United Kingdom, Malawi, Hong Kong, Australia, Italy, Germany, Czech Republic, etc. It has been reported that 61 of the 600 passengers on flights from Johannesburg to Amsterdam tested positive for the Omicron variant. 13 of them have symptoms of the virus. Europe, already affected by a resurgence of the Delta variant, is stepping up its anti-Covid measures, starting with closing its borders. France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, etc., are suspending their links with South Africa despite appeals from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Quarantine has also been reintroduced. In France, any person positive for the new variant or has been in close contact must be isolated, even if they are vaccinated. The United Kingdom now requires a mandatory PCR test 2 days after entering the country, along with self-isolation, also mandatory, pending the test result. This measure applies to all international travellers, whether they are vaccinated or not, regardless of their nationality. Until then, only an antigenic test, which is less expensive, was required, without the obligation to self-isolate. Since this test is less precise than the PCR, the Johnson government wants at all costs to prevent the situation from worsening.

In Germany, hospitals are already saturated with the Delta variant. Health workers speak of a "war situation". Health Minister Jens Spahn points out that the German air force is transporting patients from one hospital to another in the country. His views are that this new wave is as traumatic as the early days of the pandemic, and Omicron is not helping. Scientists are appealing to Germany for even more restrictions, such as closing non-essential businesses, including Christmas markets.

Belgium reintroduced curfew from 11 p.m. and ordered the closing of its nightclubs. Bars and restaurants have to close at 11 p.m. Customers must be seated, and no more than 6 are allowed at a table. Sports competitions and events will be held on-camera only. Other gatherings are prohibited, except for weddings and funerals. However, Switzerland, unlike other European states, has not tightened its Covid-related policies besides border restrictions. Travellers from the UK, Malawi, Egypt, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic now require a negative PCR test and self-isolation for 10 days.

Booster dose for all?

The extreme virulence of the Delta variant and the new Omicron variant are compelling states to step up emergency measures. The European Commission recommends making the validity of the health pass dependent on the booster dose. The booster should be administered at most 9 months after the 2nd dose. But States are free to accept the proposal or not. The Commission wants things to accelerate and hopes that this recommendation will be applied from January 10, 2022, so as to avoid misunderstandings between the States, which could have an impact on international mobility.

Another change has been made to conditions for travelling to Europe. The Commission no longer wants to look solely at the epidemiological situation in the country of departure but to concentrate on the traveller's vaccination status. Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson announced that from March 2022, all vaccinated people who have received doses of vaccines validated by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) would be able to travel to the EU. Since WHO accepts Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines (unlike AEM), travellers who have received these vaccines will also need to provide a negative PCR test.

Italy, Greece, Malta, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Norway and France have already scheduled their booster vaccination for all individuals over 18 years old, thus deviating from WHO recommendations. The countries have extended vaccination to any individual who had their 2nd injection 5 months before instead of 6. This is a radical change for Germany, which until then reserved the booster dose for over people 70s (excluding medical staff and people who are at risk). Iceland intends to open vaccination to all people over 16. Denmark is reintroducing the health pass (cancelled in September) and is considering opening the booster dose to all. Same for Belgium, which initially planned vaccination for all in 2022. The United Kingdom maintains the 6-month period between the 2nd and the 3rd dose. Besides, wearing a mask is once again compulsory in shops and transportation.

Epidemiologists are still trying to reassure that the booster dose could prevent a global disaster. Omicron is likely to spread like wildfire within a month, according to some experts. Secretary of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune, recently announced on TV that "contracts between the EU and laboratories now indicate that laboratories have an obligation to adapt their products to new variants. Pfizer-BioNTech is studying the variant, with the first results expected within two weeks. Moderna intends to develop a booster dose specific to the Omicron variant.

Health pass

Initially planned to last until November 15, the French health pass has been extended until July 31, 2022. This is the result of the law of November 10, 2021, which authorizes the State to extend the health pass, strengthen controls and sanctions, etc. A health pass is now subject to a booster dose to remain valid. People aged from 18 to 64 have until January 15, 2022, to get their booster dose. For those over 65, the deadline remains December 15, 2021. Things are also changing in the United Kingdom. On Friday, November 19, the Department of Health announced that travelling outside the country would require the booster dose. However, people travelling to England, at least, for the moment, are considered fully vaccinated once they have received their 2nd dose. The NHS Covid Pass, a compulsory travel certificate, should contain proof of the booster dose. This proof will appear on November 29 on NHS Covid Passes for Wales, but not yet on those for Scotland or Northern Ireland. Scotland is considering an imminent integration but without giving a specific date. Northern Ireland, meanwhile, allows you to select your certificate (for domestic or international use).

Increased pressure on unvaccinated people

Currently, most European countries are trying to pressurize unvaccinated people without penalizing the vaccinated. France remains open, unlike Austria or Latvia, bordering the Netherlands and Belgium, where curfews have been introduced. There are no curfews, business closures or travel restrictions. However, the validity of the PCR tests for unvaccinated people has been reduced from 72 to 24 hours since November 29. Belgium is also increasing the pressure on unvaccinated people. According to recent studies, they are more likely to be infected with Covid and to have severe forms.

The European Commission urges states to tighten restrictive measures to encourage vaccination, which looks like the only way to avoid another health disaster. WHO reiterates its calls for greater international solidarity. Gordon Brown, former British Prime Minister, supports and signs a column in The Guardian newspaper. For him, rich countries are racing for the booster dose and "grabbing available doses" while many "have not yet received a dose of vaccine". The WHO insists on triple vaccination for a good cause.