LONDON – Countries across Europe considered new curbs on movement on Tuesday as U.S. President Joe Biden called on military medics to support hospitals and fight the Omicron variant that has swept the world days before the second Christmas of the pandemic.
Omicron infections are multiplying across Europe, the United States and Asia, including in Japan, where a single cluster of COVID-19 cases at a military base has grown to at least 180.
Biden struck a dire tone about the risks to the one in four American adults who remain unvaccinated. He will lay out new initiatives on testing on Tuesday, a senior administration official said.
The measures include activating some 1,000 military medical personnel to support hospitals that are already being overwhelmed.
Germany, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands and South Korea are among countries to have reimposed partial or full lockdowns or other social distancing measures in recent days.
Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland – part of the United Kingdom but with devolved responsibilities for health – set out plans for further restrictions on big public events, including sports fixtures, for three weeks after Christmas.
“It will also mean unfortunately that large scale Hogmanay celebrations, including that planned here in our capital city (Edinburgh), will not proceed,” she said, refering to traditional Scottish New Year parties.
New Zealand COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said his country, which imposed some of the world’s toughest COVID-19 measures, was delaying the start of a staggered reopening of its border until the end of February.
“All of the evidence so far points to Omicron being the most transmissible COVID-19 variant yet,” he said.
Germany’s Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases on Tuesday recommended that “maximum contact restrictions” be imposed at once.
Federal and state leaders were due to meet later in the day to decide on new measures, which were likely to include contact restrictions even for the vaccinated and those who have recovered from an infection, but a nationwide lockdown seemed to be off the cards.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday he was looking at all kinds of measures to keep Omicron under control.
Finance minister Rishi Sunak announced 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) of extra support for businesses hit hardest by Omicron, which is hammering the hospitality sector and other businesses.
Sweden will urge all employees to work from home if possible and impose tighter rules for social distancing.
“We must now take joint responsibility and we need adapt to the new reality,” Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told a news conference. “I understand that many are tired of this – so am I – but we now have a new virus variant, which means we are in a new situation.”
In neighbouring Denmark, Omicron is now the predominant variant, Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said.
Many countries in the West are pinning their hopes on third, booster vaccine shots to keep the new variant at bay amid reports that two shots may not be enough.
The European Union’s drug regulator said early data shows a booster dose helps restore some protection against Omicron, although there is no evidence yet that tweaks to existing shots will be necessary.
Omicron has hit financial markets hard in recent days, raising investor fears for the global economic recovery as the pandemic cuts travel and seizes up supply chains.
But world shares gained on Tuesday, with the dollar softening as appetite for riskier assets made a cautious return. The broader Euro STOXX 600 rose 1.3%. Germany’s DAX‘s added 1.27%, with London’s FTSE climbing 0.99%.
Wall Street’s main indexes rose, following a steep selloff in the previous session.
In Australia, where Omicron cases have surged but hospitalisations remain relatively low, Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged state and territory leaders to avoid further lockdowns.
“We’re not going back to lockdowns. We’re going forward to live with this virus with common sense and responsibility,” he said.
In the United States, the Biden administration said it would open federal COVID-19 testing sites in New York this week and buy 500 million at-home rapid tests that Americans can order online for free.
Omicron now accounts for 73% of all new cases in the United States, up from less than 1% at the beginning of the month.
The variant was first detected last month in southern Africa and Hong Kong and so far has been reported in at least 89 countries.
The severity of illness it causes remains unclear, but the World Health Organization warned it is spreading faster than the Delta variant and is causing infections in people already vaccinated or who have recovered from the COVID-19 disease.
More than 274 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus globally since the pandemic began nearly two years ago. More than 5.65 million people have died.
Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: open https://tmsnrt.rs/2FThSv7