The omicron variant of coronavirus is “spreading at lightning speed” in Europe and is likely to become the dominant strain in France early next year, French Prime Minister Jean Castex warned on Friday as he announced new restrictions on UK travelers.
The United Kingdom has so far been the worst-affected nation in the region, with almost 15,000 confirmed cases of the omicron variant on Friday.
Across the continent, health officials are bracing for a wave of infections.
Countries such as Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands announced new restrictions on Friday to try to control the situation.
Europe has registered more than 89 million cases and 1.5 million deaths related to covid-19, according to the latest figures given by the European Union (EU).
Karl Lauterbach, Germany’s health minister, told a group of journalists on Friday that his country “must prepare for a challenge“you haven’t seen yet.
His health agency designated France, Norway and Denmark as “high risk” nations because of increased infections in those countries. Germany itself reported more than 42,000 cases on Saturday, up from 50,000 new infections on Friday.
In Ireland, where a third of the new cases are due to the new variant, President Micheál Martin assured that they expected “to see infections at a rate much higher than anything we have seen to date.”
The warnings came after the UK reported a record number of COVID-19 infections for the third day in a row, more than 93,000, largely due to the omicron variant.
About 10% of new cases are by omicron
For its part, France closed its borders to people coming from the United Kingdom for business or tourism, a story that generated huge queues at the terminals of the port of Dover, in England, and on the Eurostar train service when people tried to enter France before the ban entered in force.
The French are not the only ones who have tightened their controls. Earlier this week, they announced that visitors from the EU will be required to present a negative covid-19 test upon arrival, even those who have been vaccinated.
Hours before the new rules went into effect, Castex reported that the travel restrictions were part of a series of measures being taken to stem the tide of infections.
These include narrowing the gap between the second and third doses of the vaccine and requiring a full vaccination to enter restaurants and long-distance public transportation.
Also, all official end-of-the-year celebrations and fireworks were canceled.
Castex added that the government would announce new measures next year to address the lingering doubt about those who refuse to get vaccinated.
“It is not acceptable that the refusal of a few million French people to be vaccinated puts the lives of an entire country at risk,” he said.
This Saturday, French Health Minister Olivier Véran said that between 7 and 10% of new confirmed infections in the country are believed to be due to the omicron variant.
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, health experts recommended that the country should go into “strict” confinement, as reported by local media.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte suggested that the omicron variant could be the dominant strain in the country in January, similar to France.
Since the end of November, his government ordered the closure of bars, restaurants and most stores between 5:00 pm and 5:00 am. This measure was supposed to end before Christmas, but will now continue until January 14.
The country recorded more than 15,400 infections on Friday, fewer than the previous days, but far more than at any other time during the pandemic.
Since the Dutch health system is busy with the influx of COVID-19 patients, routine visits and all operations except urgent ones have been postponed.
The hospitality industry in Ireland has said it will suffer from new rules that go into effect on Monday which stipulate that pubs, restaurants, theaters and cinemas must close every day at 8:00 pm.
The move has also been criticized by some politicians in Ireland’s ruling coalition, who said the new rules would encourage more gatherings in homes.
Likewise, sports facilities must operate at 50% of their capacity or have an attendance limit of 5,000 people.
Wedding celebrations will only be allowed until midnight, with a maximum of 100 guests.
In Ireland there is already a limit of four households that are allowed to socialize together within one home.
Irish Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar reported that the government would announce financial aid on Monday to support companies affected by the new rules.
Melissa Galbraith is the World News reporter for Globe Live Media. She covers all the major events happening around the World. From Europe to Americas, from Asia to Antarctica, Melissa covers it all. Never miss another Major World Event by bookmarking her author page right here.