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Nations consider more omicron restrictions as New Year’s holiday nears

Politicians were caught in a bind over spoiling another party to make sure health care systems don’t collapse.
Pharmacists fill syringes Monday from vials of the Moderna booster vaccine at the Antwerp Expo vaccine center in Antwerp, Belgium. Many in Belgium flocked to their local vaccine center to receive their booster shots and stay ahead of the surging omicron infections.
Pharmacists fill syringes Monday from vials of the Moderna booster vaccine at the Antwerp Expo vaccine center in Antwerp, Belgium. Many in Belgium flocked to their local vaccine center to receive their booster shots and stay ahead of the surging omicron infections. [ VIRGINIA MAYO | AP ]
Published Dec. 27, 2021

BRUSSELS — After struggling with the coronavirus for far too long, the world understands all too well Belgium’s word of the year, “knaldrang!” — the urge to party, the need to let loose. Yet as New Year celebrations approach, the omicron variant is casting more gloom.

Monday was a case in point, with several governments considering more restrictions to add to a patchwork of measures and lockdowns already in place around Europe.

The French government and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson were assessing the latest data and the need to counter the record numbers of COVID-19 infections with more measures to keep people apart at a time when they so dearly want to be together.

But with indications that omicron might be a milder variant despite its massive transmissibility, politicians were caught in a bind whether to further spoil yet another party or play safe to make sure health care systems don’t collapse.

Further complicating matters was the lack of full data over the Christmas weekend, making the chronicling of the rise of omicron more difficult.

In Belgium, people faced their first real test with several new measures on Monday. Shopping was reduced to maximum two adults, possibly with kids in tow, and movie theaters and concert halls closed at a time when countless families are on vacation together.

The calls to close theaters and arts centers came in for especially heavy criticism.

“We need it also for our mental health. It is the only way for people to live experiences, to tell stories. It is of paramount importance for us to be open in these complicated and complex times,” said Michael De Kok, the artistic director of the Flemish Royal Theatre.

Even communal celebrations like New Year’s fireworks, that would usually see thousands thronging Brussels for the best views, are off. Nightclubs are already closed and restaurants and bars need to shut doors at 11 p.m.

In the United Kingdom, there are similar creeping moves. Scotland will close its nightclubs Monday after Northern Ireland and Wales already did so on Sunday, though they remain open in England. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has resisted ordering new restrictions but hasn’t ruled them out, is expected to be briefed Monday on the latest data on the spread of omicron.

Even that staple of British holiday celebrations, the steady stream of English Premier League games, is under threat. The league has already called off 15 soccer matches in 2½ weeks and more could well be upcoming.

U.K. daily infection numbers reached a new high of 122,186 on Friday, but there were no figures over the long Christmas weekend.

France has recorded more than 100,000 virus infections in a single day for the first time in the pandemic and COVID-19 hospitalizations have doubled over the past month. President Emmanuel Macron’s government is holding emergency meetings Monday to discuss the next steps in tackling the virus.

It is hoping that stepped-up vaccinations will be enough. The government is pushing a draft law that would require vaccination to enter all restaurants and many public venues, instead of the current health pass system which allows people to produce a negative test or proof of recovery if they’re not vaccinated.

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This piecemeal, often hesitant approach is visible through much of Europe. In Poland, a nation of 38 million where the daily death toll now often breaks through the threshold of 500 cases, nightclubs may be closed, but they will be allowed to reopen on New Year’s Eve, with the government unwilling to go against the many voters opposed to restrictions and mandatory vaccinations.

In Italy, the government has not mandated any rules for private gatherings, but it has set its sights on New Year’s Eve, banning outdoor events and closing discotheques until the end of January.

The Netherlands is currently the exception to the rule of disjointed decision-making. The government there has gone farther than most European countries and shut down all nonessential stores, restaurants and bars and extended the school holidays in a partial new lockdown.

- Raf Casert, Colleen Barry, Sylvia Hui, Geir Moulson and Vanessa Gera

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