As some nations reimpose tough measures, including lockdowns, to curb infections spurred by the highly transmissible new omicron coronavirus variant, others are going the other way and loosening up even as case numbers spike.
The Netherlands imposed a snap lockdown starting Sunday. France banned New Year’s Eve fireworks. Officials in Ireland imposed a nightly curfew from Monday, requiring pubs, restaurants, theaters and cinemas to close by 8 p.m. Several European countries including France and Germany imposed new travel restrictions.
Meanwhile, in Australia – once dubbed the “Hermit Kingdom” for the way it sealed its international borders against the virus – officials in the country’s most populous areas have loosened nearly all restrictions in recent days, despite case numbers soaring to fresh records.
New Zealand, too, has been loosening restrictions aimed at tackling an outbreak of the delta variant after hitting the 90 percent vaccination mark this month. Thanks to that change, the country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, is set to celebrate her pandemic-delayed wedding next month with dozens of guests, and a performance by singer Lorde, the New Zealand Herald reported.
In Australia, which reopened its mostly shut border in November, experts have questioned the merits of ending preventative measures such as mask-wearing indoors just as case numbers are touching local records. The last time restrictions were eased, the borders were closed to international arrivals and the virus had been all but eliminated in the community.
Even as some community restrictions lift in New Zealand, its border remains mostly closed, and international arrivals spend two weeks in hotel quarantine, which has kept the number of confirmed cases of the omicron variant to about a dozen, all detected before they could spread.
Health officials in Australia’s New South Wales state, home to Sydney, lifted a raft of restrictions Dec. 15, including those around masks-wearing and proof of vaccination. Until then, unvaccinated people had effectively been in lockdown – unable to dine out, go to the gym or shop for anything other than essential groceries.
That’s as at least 97 coronavirus cases were linked to a Taylor Swift-themed dance party on Dec. 10 in Sydney, and some 600 are in isolation as close contacts. More than 200 people contracted the virus following a recent nightclub outbreak in Newcastle.
Disease modelers say Australia’s most populous state could record as many as 25,000 cases a day by the end of January – the same number recorded across Britain on Friday, where surging case numbers have seen London’s mayor declare a “major incident” to help the city’s hospitals cope. Australian officials have cited the data from researchers as a reason for people to exercise self-restraint, limiting their activities over the holiday season.
The president of the Australian Medical Association, Omar Khorshid, said Saturday that loosening restrictions such as mask wearing while cases are rising sharply is “bizarre timing.” More than 10,000 people have contracted the virus in New South Wales in the past five days.
“Hospitalizations lag behind infections quite significantly by a week or even two weeks; it’s too late once we actually see a sharp rise in hospitalizations,” Khorshid said.
Government officials have argued vaccinations and boosters are the way to keep cases down. About 77 percent of Australians are fully vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
“We’re ready for this. We planned to live with the virus, we didn’t plan to remain shut in,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on Saturday.
The World Health Organization issued a grim weekend prediction that with cases rising so rapidly, hospitals in many places could “become quickly overwhelmed.” The omicron variant has been reported in 89 countries, and the number of cases is doubling in 1 1/2 to three days in areas with community transmission, the organization said Saturday.
The United States has responded by introducing travel bans for a number of African countries, and introduced additional pre-departure testing requirements for arrivals into the country, as well as encouraging Americans to get booster shots.
Across Europe, where omicron is poised to become the dominant variant, nations are moving to reimpose tougher measures to stem infections as the new variant spreads at lightning speed across the continent.
In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that all non-essential stores, bars and restaurants will be closed until Jan. 14, starting Sunday. Schools and universities will shut