COVID Panic Grips Europe as Explosion in Omicron Cases Threatens Christmas

Many Europeans are concerned that the surge in Omicron COVID infections could put an end to their Christmas plans, after the U.K. reported a record of 78,610 daily COVID cases on Wednesday.

England's chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, on Wednesday urged the public to scale back their Christmas plans to prevent the spread of the highly transmissible variant. Wednesday's number was about 10,000 higher than the previous peak in daily infections reported in January.

Whitty said that Britain is being hit by "two epidemics on top of each other" and that people should treat social activity at Christmas with caution.

"People should be prioritising those things, and only those things, that really matter to them," Whitty told a press briefing. "Don't mix with people you don't have to."

He warned that the daily case numbers in the U.K. would continue to break records in the coming weeks and that a significant rise in hospitalizations was likely.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned in the same briefing that the new variant is doubling in less than two days in some parts of Britain. It's now the dominant strain in London, according to government data.

A survey of over 1,000 British adults released on Wednesday showed that around half of people across the U.K. are expecting to have to cancel their Christmas plans.

Much of the rest of Europe is also alarmed at the surge in Omicron, and some countries have brought in restrictions to try and slow the spread of the new variant.

In response to Britain's record high infection numbers, France plans to introduce new restrictions on travelers from the UK and on non-French residents. Reports suggest that from midnight on Saturday, leisure travel will no longer be permitted and only trips deemed "essential" will be allowed. This will even apply to those who are fully vaccinated.

'Christmas in Pandemic Mode'

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that Europe is "facing another Christmas in pandemic mode." During her speech in the European Parliament, she added that Omicron is expected to be the dominant strain of COVID in the 27-nation bloc by the middle of January.

Despite 66.6 percent of the EU being fully vaccinated, von der Leyen expressed disappointment that the pandemic would again disrupt Christmas and New Year celebrations.

A new large-scale study of the illness in South Africa, published on Tuesday, found that Omicron appears to be more resistant to vaccines, but that it is causing less severe illness. The analysis found two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine offered 70 percent protection against omicron hospitalization, compared to 90 percent for the Delta variant.

However, the study doesn't guarantee the impact Omicron will have in other places. For example, the less severe illness caused in South Africa by the variant could be explained by high levels of previous COVID infections, with 38 percent of the country's adult population being fully vaccinated.

Ursula von der Leyen Brussels
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen talks to the media at the end of the weekly EU Commission meeting, in the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarters on December 1, 2021, in Brussels, Belgium. Von der Leyen said on Wednesday that Europe is “facing another Christmas in pandemic mode.” Thierry Monasse