Across Europe, records for new coronavirus infections are dropping day by day as the Omicron variant tears populations apart with a speed exceeding anything seen in the past two years of the pandemic.
Like the United States, which on Tuesday recorded a new record for daily cases, European countries are battling an attack of infections caused by a virus that shows no signs of disappearing. Britain, Denmark, France, Greece and Italy all set records for new daily cases this week, and in each country health officials suspect Omicron is the source of the infections. .
While there are early indications that the variant may be milder than previous versions of the virus – with previous vaccinations, boosters, and infections all offering some protection against serious illness and death – the wave of infections are wreaking havoc on their own, as people scramble to get tests, businesses grapple with staff shortages and New Year’s celebrations come under question.
In England and Northern Ireland on Wednesday no PCR test appointments were available to book online, and around noon many people reported that none were available to order online through the services of British government health. According to industry representatives, people show up to pharmacies for rapid lateral flow tests, but often leave empty-handed.
In France, which on Wednesday set a record of 208,000 new daily cases, the most recorded in a European country since the start of the pandemic, the Minister of Health, Olivier Véran, estimated that the increase was “dizzying”.
“This means that 24 hours a day, day and night, every second in our country, two French people are diagnosed positive,” he said, according to Reuters.
In Spain – which is reporting around 100,000 daily infections for the first time in the pandemic – contact tracing efforts are overwhelmed and people are lining up outside hospitals to urgently request tests so they can be approved for medical leave. Although Spain does not see a sharp increase in the number of people requiring intensive care, Mario Fontán of the Spanish Society of Epidemiology said concerns about the infection were growing.
“A feeling of greater chaos has been created compared to the severity required by the clinical picture,” he told Spanish media.
Portugal has carried out one of the most successful vaccination campaigns in the world, reaching almost all eligible people and reducing the toll caused by the Delta variant. But infections are on the rise again, with Health Minister Marta Temido warning that the number of infections could double every week, given the current trend of Omicron cases.
Even in the Netherlands, which almost two weeks ago became the only country in Europe to re-impose a nationwide lockdown, Omicron is spreading, causing more than 50% of infections in the past week, replacing Delta as the dominant variant, according to the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.
“The faster spread of this variant of Omicron will lead to additional infections in the near future, which will also increase the number of hospital admissions,” the institute said on Tuesday.
Since hospitalization data lags behind infection reports, scientists are warning that it is too early to assess the effect of the Omicron wave on healthcare systems. At present, none of the European countries setting infection records are reporting a rapid increase in hospitalizations, although the increase has only been a few weeks ago.
Because Omicron appears to have spread to Britain weeks before most countries, health experts are looking there for signs of the severity of the variant. England recorded 117,093 cases on Tuesday, a new record, but the number of people in need of intensive care remains below the January peak.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday cited this preliminary data to justify his decision not to tighten the restrictions.
“We are looking at the data, and what we are seeing is that we have cases that are definitely increasing – we have a lot of Omicron cases,” he said, “but on the other hand, we can see the data on the relative smoothness of Omicron.
But experts have warned that a fuller picture will not be available until early January.
Raphael Minder and Megan specia contributed reports.