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Britain’s Omicron surge is seen as a warning, but responses vary

A woman wearing a face mask shops at Covent Garden
A woman shops at Covent Garden market in London on Thursday.
(Alberto Pezzali / Associated Press)

Spiraling infections in Britain driven in part by the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus rattled many in Europe on Thursday, fueling a familiar dread that tighter restrictions will scuttle holiday plans again this year.

Much remains unknown about Omicron, but increasingly officials are warning that at the very least it appears to be more transmissible than the Delta variant, which was already putting pressure on hospitals from the United States to the Netherlands. With so many variables unknown, uncertainty reigned over decisions on how quickly and how severely to crack down on Christmas travel and end-of-year parties.

After the United Kingdom recorded its highest number of confirmed new COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began, France announced Thursday that it would tighten entry rules for people coming from Britain. Hours later, the U.K. set another record, with a further 88,376 confirmed COVID-19 cases reported Thursday, almost 10,000 more than the day before.

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In England, the chief medical officer urged people to limit whom they see in the festive period — and pubs and restaurants said many were heeding that advice by canceling Christmas parties, though there has been much debate about what’s OK to do right now. In the U.S., meanwhile, the White House insisted there was no need for a lockdown, despite signs that Omicron was gaining ground.

More than 75 countries have reported confirmed cases of the new variant. In Britain, where Omicron cases are doubling every two to three days, the variant is expected to soon replace Delta as the dominant strain in the country — and the government has accelerated its booster program in response. Authorities in the 27-nation European Union say Omicron will be the dominant variant in the bloc by mid-January.

Some former vaccine skeptics in Eastern Europe have shifted over to the other side as infections surge and authorities battle against disinformation.

In addition to hints that it’s more contagious, early data suggest Omicron may be milder but better at evading vaccines — making booster shots more crucial. Experts have urged caution in particular on drawing conclusions about how mild it is because hospitalizations lag behind infections and many variables contribute to how sick people get.

Also, even if Omicron proves milder on the whole than Delta, it may disarm some of the lifesaving tools available and put immune-compromised and elderly people at particular risk. And if it’s more transmissible, more infections overall raise the risk that more cases will be serious.

As experts gather the data, some governments have rushed to act, while others have sought to calm fears that the new variant would land countries back on square one.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday that the situation in the U.K. is different from last year because of the widespread use of vaccines and availability of testing.

He said that if people want to attend an event, “the sensible thing to do is to get a test and to make sure that you’re being cautious.”

“But we’re not saying that we want to cancel stuff, we’re not locking stuff down, and the fastest route back to normality is to get boosted,” he said.

Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, however, struck a more cautious note, advising people earlier in the week to limit their social contacts.

On Thursday, he said at a parliamentary committee hearing that the government might have to review measures if vaccines prove insufficiently effective against Omicron.

He said that “would be a material change to how ministers viewed the risks going forward.”

Among those taking the more cautious route was Queen Elizabeth II, who opted to cancel her traditional pre-Christmas family lunch as cases soared.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, has been in a partial lockdown since November to curb a Delta-driven surge and, while infection numbers are declining now, the government this week ordered elementary schools to begin their Christmas breaks a week early amid fears Omicron will fuel a new rise. Authorities also sped up a vaccination booster campaign as caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte cited Britain as an example of how swiftly the variant can spread.

EU leaders gathering in Brussels for a summit Thursday sought to balance the imperative to tackle the surge of infections across the continent with the need to keep borders open using common policies throughout the bloc.

“Let’s try to maintain the European solution,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said. “If every country goes it alone again, we’ll be even further from home.”

But ahead of the meeting, European nations already were acting to rein in the spread of the virus. Greece and Italy tightened entry requirements for travelers earlier this week, and Portugal decided to keep stricter border controls in place beyond their planned Jan. 9 end.

On Thursday, France said it would impose restrictions on travelers arriving from the U.K. — which is no longer part of the EU — putting limits on reasons for traveling and requiring 48-hour isolation upon arrival. The new measures will take effect Saturday.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex said the measures are being imposed “in the face of the extremely rapid spread of the Omicron variant in the U.K.”

The abrupt move comes after weeks of political tensions between France and Britain over fishing rights and how to deal with migration across the English Channel. It also comes as France’s government is desperately trying to avoid a new lockdown that would hurt the economy and cloud President Emmanuel Macron’s expected reelection campaign.

Waiting outside a Paris train station, Constantin Dobrynin said that he sometimes thought governments overreacted and imposed unnecessary measures. As for Omicron, it wasn’t yet clear how serious it would be, he said.

“So we should be balanced, and we shouldn’t be panicked,” he said.

Britain said it was not planning reciprocal measures.

Fearing a raft of canceled parties and a general drop in business at the height of the crucial and lucrative Christmas season, British restaurants and pubs demanded government help Thursday. They said concerns about the new variant have already wiped out $2.6 billion in sales over the last 10 days.

Across London, restaurants that would normally see bustling crowds clinking glasses and tucking into festive meals were reporting droves of cancellations and empty rooms.

“It’s a complete nightmare. ... This week should be the busiest week of the year for hospitality,” said Sally Abé, a chef at the Conrad Hotel in central London. “It’s everywhere, everybody’s canceling, but there’s no support from the government.”

Kirka reported from London and Corder from The Hague. Associated Press writer Sylvia Hui in London and others contributed to this report.


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