Europe rang in the New Year in a subdued fashion, as several countries reported record Covid-19 infections and governments considered how to contain the virus when workers return to offices and children go back to school.
Fireworks displays and large public gatherings were scrapped or scaled back for New Year’s Eve across the continent despite early data suggesting the Omicron variant produces a milder form of disease than its predecessors. Hospitals are bracing for a flood of patients because of increased social contacts over the festive period and the high transmissibility of the strain.
“We all know the coming weeks will be difficult,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in his New Year’s Eve address, as the country reported more than 232,000 new coronavirus infections, a pandemic record.
But he said he was hopeful that France’s relatively high vaccination rates would enable the country to avoid the tighter restrictions that have been imposed in other parts of Europe.
While many cities, including Paris, canceled fireworks displays, bars and restaurants remained open. And though hospital admissions are rising faster than before, the number of more-serious admissions to intensive-care units remain relatively flat week to week. “I want to believe, with you, that 2022 could be the year we leave behind this epidemic,” Mr. Macron said.
The cautious optimism was underpinned by signals from South Africa, where Omicron was first detected in November, that the variant has now peaked. Data from the U.K. also indicated the disease caused by Omicron is less severe than the Delta strain that was until recently most prevalent.
Scientists, however, have cautioned that the impact of the variant in Europe may differ from that in South Africa, which has a young population and likely some degree of immunity to severe disease owing to high levels of prior infection. It is also summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and the virus tends to spread more easily in winter, when people gather indoors.
Although in retreat in some countries north of the Alps such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, the new variant now has Southern Europe firmly in its grip, with Italy and Spain recording their highest daily infection numbers of the pandemic. Southern countries had hoped relatively high vaccination rates and milder winter weather would stave off the worst of the new variant.
Confirmed new Covid-19 infections in Italy hit a pandemic record of more than 144,000 on Friday. In Spain, confirmed cases also surpassed 100,000 a day as the year drew to a close. Cases in Portugal and Greece have been rising rapidly, too
Hospital admissions in Italy have also been increasing, but, as in other European countries, the pressure on healthcare systems remains significantly lower than a year ago, a sign of the continued efficacy of mass vaccinations.
Even so, the U.K., which has led one of the fastest booster campaigns, is setting up temporary units to expand hospital capacity in anticipation of a possible surge of patients after Christmas and New Year.
At the same time, European authorities are preparing for the reopening of schools this month, with most governments looking for ways to keep students in class despite the surge in infections.
Authorities in Germany and neighboring Austria have pledged to keep schools after facing criticism from experts and parents for closures during the earlier stages of the pandemic.
The British government also says keeping children in class is a priority and is planning for schools to open as normal this month. Pupils in English secondary education will be expected to take a test when they return and then test themselves twice weekly. The education secretary launched an appeal for former teachers to come forward to work in schools that are hit hard by staff illnesses.
Despite these measures, schools are also being told to plan for the worst.
“I ask that you review your existing contingency plans to ensure you are well prepared to implement them in case of any future changes,” Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi wrote to schools recently. Some schoolchildren took laptops home at the beginning of the holiday period in case their schools were shut on their return and remote schooling had to resume.
Schools in France are also slated to reopen as planned on Monday after the holiday break, though trips to indoor locations like theaters are to be delayed. Children will have to stay home when teachers are absent and can’t be replaced, rather than sitting in on other classes, the education ministry has said.
The French Parliament is also debating a new emergency law that will turn France’s health pass into a vaccine pass—meaning that a recent negative Covid-19 test would no longer suffice to access venues such as restaurants, cinemas, long-distance transportation and some large shopping centers.
Italy’s government is due to decide this week whether to tighten rules for workplace health certificates, requiring all workers to show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19 to enter offices, stores and factories. Until now, a negative test has also sufficed.
The approach is similar to that in Germany and Austria, which have driven down recent Covid-19 waves by tightening social-distancing restrictions, above all for unvaccinated people. The approach has proved politically divisive in Italy, however, with antiestablishment politicians reluctant to push people too far toward de-facto mandatory vaccination.
Elsewhere, new infections in Saudi Arabia have jumped 34-fold over the past month, with 819 cases reported Friday, the highest level since the summer.
The authorities this week reinstituted a mask mandate in public places including outdoor events amid a weekslong festival in the capital, Riyadh. They have also restored social-distancing measures at the Grand Mosques in Mecca and Medina, where millions of Muslims make pilgrimages each year.
—Max Colchester, William Boston and Bojan Pancevski contributed to this article.
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