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UK may tighten restrictions before Christmas as Europe tries to tame Omicron wave

British health secretary won’t rule out further regulations before end of week, with nation facing surge of infections; US senators Warren and Booker contract virus

Shoppers walk along Oxford Street, Europe's busiest shopping street, in London, Dec. 18, 2021 (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Shoppers walk along Oxford Street, Europe's busiest shopping street, in London, Dec. 18, 2021 (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Britain’s health secretary has refused to rule out imposing tougher COVID-19 restrictions before Christmas amid the rapid rise of infections and continuing uncertainty about the Omicron variant.

Nations across Europe are moving quickly to reimpose tougher measures to stem a new wave of COVID-19 infections spurred by the Omicron variant.

The Dutch government began a tough nationwide lockdown starting Sunday to rein in sharply rising infections and alarmed ministers in France, Germany, Austria and Cyprus have tightened travel restrictions.

Ireland imposed an 8 p.m. curfew on pubs and bars and limited attendance at indoor and outdoor events. Paris canceled its New Year’s Eve fireworks.

British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Sunday that the government was assessing the fast-moving situation and urged the public to be cautious as scientists examine the data. Much is still unknown about the highly transmissible new variant, even as hospitals brace for a surge in infections, he told the BBC.

“There are no guarantees in this pandemic, I don’t think,’’ Javid replied when asked about the potential for new restrictions. “At this point we just have to keep everything under review.”

Britain’s Health Secretary Sajid Javid speaks during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, October 20, 2021. (Toby Melville/Pool Photo via AP)

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week reinstated rules requiring face masks in shops and ordered people to show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test before entering nightclubs and other crowded venues.

He has championed a program that relies on vaccines, an operation that delivered 830,000 booster shots on Saturday alone.

Vaccination sites are being asked to operate 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with shopping centers, cathedrals and soccer stadiums turned into mass vaccination centers. Some sites are working 24 hours a day to make it easier for people who work shifts.

But the government’s scientific advisers believe it won’t be enough and have recommended more far-reaching restrictions to prevent UK hospitals from being overwhelmed, according to leaked minutes from a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies seen by the BBC.

“We can’t wait for hospitalizations to go through the roof before we do something about it, because by then it’s too late,″ Professor David Spiegelhalter told Sky News.

A cyclist working for a delivery company rides on an empty road downtown Rotterdam on December 19, 2021, on the first day of The Netherlands’ lockdown over the Christmas period to try to stop a surge of the Omicron coronavirus variant (Marco de Swart / ANP / AFP)

The British Medical Association is warning 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 measures are introduced. Johnson’s Conservative government needs further measures beyond just trying to vaccine-boost its way out of the situation, said Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the association’s council.

“The reality is that MPs [lawmakers] have broken up for Christmas leaving the NHS brutally exposed to suffer the consequences of surging case rates and without the restrictions needed to bring these under control,” Nagpaul said. “Doctors are not only incredibly worried about the potential impact this could have on hospitalizations, but also about what it would mean for patient care across the NHS if we have vast swathes of staff off sick.”

The government on Sunday reported 82,886 more lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in a day. With over 147,000 deaths, Britain already has Europe’s highest COVID-19 death toll after Russia.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan underscored concerns about the climbing COVID-19 cases and their potential to overwhelm the health care system by declaring a major incident Saturday, a move that allows local councils in Britain’s capital to coordinate more closely with emergency services.

An intubated COVID-19 patient gets treatment at the intensive care unit at the Westerstede Clinical Center, a military-civilian hospital in Westerstede, northwest Germany, Dec. 17, 2021 (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

That came the same day as protesters marched in London to decry the new restrictions. Thousands similarly demonstrated in Brussels to protest the government’s strong advice to get vaccinated.

The World Health Organization reported Saturday that Omicron has been detected in 89 countries. It said COVID-19 cases involving the variant are doubling every 1.5 to 3 days in places with community transmission.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s top medical adviser, said Sunday the Omicron variant was “just raging around the world.”

The Biden administration is expecting a series of breakthrough infections with the surge of holiday travelers. Fauci said most people who have been vaccinated and gotten a booster should be fine if they take precautions such as wearing masks in crowded settings including airports.

Biden plans to speak Tuesday on the status of the fight against COVID-19 and discuss government help for communities in need of assistance, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted. She also said he will be “issuing a stark warning of what the winter will look like for Americans that choose to remain unvaccinated.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, December 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Fauci was asked on CNN whether he expected a record numbers of cases — and what about hospitalizations and deaths. “Yes, well, unfortunately, I think that that is going to happen,” he said.

Fauci also cautioned against too much optimism over Omicron’s severity, noting that in South Africa, while the hospitalization-to-case ratio is lower than with Delta, this could be due to underlying immunity from widespread previous infections.

“No matter how you look at it,” he said, “when you have so many, many infections, even if it is less severe, that overcomes this slight to moderate diminution in severity.”

“Our hospitals, if things look like they’re looking now in the next week or two, are going to be very stressed,” particularly in areas of the country with low levels of vaccination, Fauci said.

On Sunday, US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker each said separately on Twitter that they had tested positive for COVID-19 despite being vaccinated and boosted, and were experiencing mild symptoms.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat-Massachusetts, gestures towards New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, in Miami, June 26, 2019. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Warren tweeted: “Thankfully, I am only experiencing mild symptoms & am grateful for the protection provided against serious illness that comes from being vaccinated & boosted.”

She didn’t elaborate on where she might have contracted the virus but said she’s regularly tested and turned up negative for COVID-19 earlier this past week. Spokespersons for her office didn’t respond to an email seeking comment Sunday.

Warren was at the US Capitol this week along with other senators as Democrats seek to pass US President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion Build Back Better social and environment bill.

In a statement from his office, Booker said: “I’m beyond grateful to have received two doses of vaccine and, more recently, a booster — I’m certain that without them I would be doing much worse.”

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