BERLIN — Germany is preparing for the worst as a second COVID Christmas approaches, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz calling on the country’s essential services to dust off their disaster plans in case staff are hit by the Omicron variant.
The highly infectious viral strain, discovered in southern Africa just a month ago, is already dominant in England, Scotland, Ireland and Germany’s northern neighbor Denmark. Its takeover of other European countries is a matter of days or weeks away, according to infectious disease experts.
“Before Christmas, I would have liked to break better news to you,” a somber Scholz told reporters after agreeing with state governors on Tuesday to impose a series of restrictions on social contacts over the New Year holidays to slow down Omicron.
“Even those who have been vaccinated twice and those who have recovered [from COVID-19] run a high risk of contracting this variant,” Scholz warned, urging people in Germany to get boosted.
Case numbers of the newest coronavirus variant have been doubling every couple of days in the countries hardest hit, with each person who catches it likely to infect three to five others. And, although Omicron has been observed in South Africa to cause less severe illness than earlier strains such as Delta, Scholz’s team of advisers has warned that hospitals and other essential services could still be put at risk if large numbers of staff are sidelined by illness.
“That’s why we are calling on all our critical infrastructure organizations — above all the fire brigade, police, rescue services and hospitals — to activate their pandemic plans so that they can keep their core services running,” said Scholz.
Sweden, which took a lenient approach to social restrictions in the first wave of the pandemic, announced its own social restrictions on Tuesday after its forecasters predicted a surge in case numbers in January — despite the fact that much of the population has already received vaccine booster shots.
Similar crisis meetings ahead of the year-end holidays are scheduled in Belgium on Wednesday and in Italy on Thursday.
Germany will limit private gatherings to 10 people from December 28; clubs and discos will close; and major sporting events will be held in empty stadiums, Scholz and governors of Germany’s 16 federal states agreed.
The restrictions followed a warning from the government’s new COVID-19 advisory council on Sunday that “a relevant part of the population would be simultaneously ill and/or in quarantine, should the spread of Omicron in Germany continue.”
Such a scenario would “put an extreme strain on the health care system and the entire critical infrastructure of the country.”
Weighing in on Tuesday, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, said: “Governments and authorities need to prepare our response systems for a significant surge.”
It was vital to get booster shots into arms after laboratory studies found that Omicron can evade the immune protection gained through a standard vaccination course or prior infection.
“If you are unvaccinated — get the jab. If you have had COVID-19 in the past — get the jab. If you are due a booster — get the jab,” Kluge said in Vienna.
Mass infection, mass isolation
With the winter break about to start, other countries are facing the same inconvenient events: sacrosanct celebrations, pandemic fatigue and the imminent threat of Omicron.
In Britain, Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, has warned that Omicron is so contagious that it will not only reach every unvaccinated person, putting immense strain on health systems, but it will also cause huge swathes of populations to isolate. That in turn will put pressure on countries’ ability to continue operating essential services at full capacity — from power to emergency services, to water and transport.
The only way to protect economies from this tidal wave of Omicron cases is to implement public health measures, said Farrar.
“To bring Omicron under any form of control, it’s critical that transmission is slowed. If not, we could see profound impacts on health systems but also across sectors such as education, hospitality, public transport, police and essential national infrastructure as infections prevent people from working,” he said. “No country can afford to think they are an exception.”
In Ireland, Sam McConkey, director of the Department of International Health and Tropical Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons, said his country needs to brace for Omicron if it is to avoid staff shortages.
“There’s going to be a huge staffing crisis in hospitals, health care and GP and in many other sectors that are essential,” McConkey said.
On Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that the country’s rules on people who were in close contact with others who were later found to be infectious with the coronavirus might have to be eased, lest too many have to quarantine at the same time.
In Rome, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi on Monday said that while no new pandemic rules have been agreed yet, discussions about them should include thoughts on how to protect public services amid even the worst-case scenarios. Italy already suffers a shortage of police, who after years of cutbacks are struggling to meet calls by the Interior Ministry and Draghi for increased checks on vaccination passports.
Shawn Pogatchnik and Hannah Roberts contributed reporting.
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