Global COVID Surge Before Christmas Puts Governments Worldwide in Tight Spot

Countries around the world are bracing for a surge of COVID-19 cases as Christmas quickly approaches.

The United States and European countries are experiencing significant increases in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths due to the Omicron coronavirus variant. According to experts, it could get even worse once Christmas arrives. However, some leaders, including President Joe Biden, are hesitant to enforce mandates and restrictions.

"The earlier [restrictions] are applied, the shorter the time they are needed," said epidemiologist Miguel Hernán. The Harvard University researcher helped to advise the Spanish government in 2020 on how to handle the pandemic. While he said he understands the hesitancy to enforce mandates, Hernán says that they are critical if governments want the pandemic to end.

This sentiment is shared by German state governor Hendrik Wuest, who warned that tighter restrictions could be made in his state of North Rhine-Westphalia after Christmas.

"I don't think big New Year parties can happen this year — unfortunately, again," he told reporters on Monday. "Omicron won't forgive us any carelessness if we aren't cautious."

Some restrictions are already being made. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reinstated mask mandates throughout the region in public spaces, such as restaurants and clubs. Furthermore, more vaccine clinics are opening up, prompting Johnson to put a call out for volunteers with experience in shot administration. However, this does not fix the current staffing shortage throughout the nation, as highlighted by Patricia Marquis of the Royal College of Nursing union.

"In many places they're already under immense stress and pressure, and so they are starting to go off sick themselves with COVID, but also mental and physical exhaustion," said Marquis in a BBC interview. "So, staff are looking forward now thinking, 'Oh my goodness, what is coming?'"

Britain Vaccine Bus
Members of the public receive their Covid-19 vaccine or booster at a NHS (National Health Service) bus outside an Asda Supermarket in the town of Farnworth, near Manchester in north-west England on December 20, 2021, as the booster rollout accelerates in England. Photo by Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

Britain's main nurses' union warned Monday that exhaustion and surging coronavirus cases among medical staff are pushing them to the breaking point, adding to pressure on the government for new restrictions to curb record numbers of infections driven by the omicron variant.

The warning throws into stark relief the unpalatable choice Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces: wreck holiday plans for millions for a second year running, or face a potential tidal wave of cases and disruption.

Early evidence suggests Omicron may also produce less serious illness — though scientists caution it is too soon to say — and that it could better evade vaccine protection.

Even if it is milder, the new variant could still overwhelm health systems because of the sheer number of infections. Confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.K. have surged by 50% in a week as Omicron overtook Delta as the dominant variant.

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

The government is hoping vaccine boosters will offer more protection against Omicron, as the data suggests, and has set a goal of offering everyone 18 and up an extra shot by the end of December. More than 900,000 booster shots were delivered on Sunday, as soccer stadiums, shopping centers and cathedrals were turned into temporary inoculation clinics.

U.S. vaccine maker Moderna said Monday that lab tests suggested that a booster dose of its vaccine should offer protection against Omicron. Pfizer's testing also found a booster triggered a big jump in Omicron-fighting antibodies.

But many scientists say boosters alone are not enough and tougher action is needed.

Ahead of a British Cabinet meeting on COVID-19 Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said Monday he could not "make hard and fast guarantees" that new restrictions would not be announced this week.

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

The speed of Omicron's spread in the U.K., where cases of the variant are doubling about every two days, is decimating the economy in the busy pre-Christmas period.

Usually teeming theaters and restaurants are being hit by cancellations. Some eateries and pubs have closed until after the holidays because so many staff are off sick or self-isolating. The Natural History Museum, one of London's leading attractions, said Monday it was closing for a week because of "front-of-house staff shortages."

Other countries are warily watching the U.K., which on Sunday reported 82,886 more lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in a day, close to the record high set last week.

The Dutch government began a tough nationwide lockdown on Sunday to rein in sharply rising infections. The World Economic Forum, meanwhile, announced Monday it is again delaying its annual meeting of world leaders, business executives and other elites in Davos, Switzerland, because of Omicron uncertainty.

But many European leaders have opted for something less.

France and Germany have barred most British travelers from entering, and the government in Paris has also banned public concerts and fireworks displays at New Year's celebrations. Ireland imposed an 8 p.m. curfew on pubs and bars and limited attendance at indoor and outdoor events.

Portugal is telling most nonessential workers to work from home for a week in January, while Greece will have 10,000 police officers on duty over 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 authorities in the country with one of Europe's highest vaccination rates are betting primarily on mandatory mask-wearing indoors and the rollout of booster shots, with no further restrictions in the pipeline.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Amsterdam Street
People walk down a normally bustling shopping street in the center of Amsterdam, Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. Nations across Europe have moved to reimpose tougher measures to stem a new wave of COVID-19 infections spurred by the highly transmissible omicron variant, with the Netherlands leading the way by imposing a nationwide lockdown. All non-essential stores, bars and restaurants in the Netherlands will be closed until Jan. 14. AP Photo/Peter Dejong