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COVID-19 in Europe: Finland, Denmark follow Netherlands in easing restrictions

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By Euronews
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People with mandatory face masks line up to enter the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.
People with mandatory face masks line up to enter the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Martin Meissner

Several countries in Europe are still registering a record number of COVID-19 infections this week — here is our summary of the situation across the continent.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday that Europe was entering a new phase of the virus. WHO regional director Dr Hans Kluge said the Omicron variant made up a third of cases across the continent.

But Kruge added that the region is moving towards "a kind of pandemic endgame", adding that Omicron could infect 60 per cent of Europeans by March.

Some countries have taken steps targeting the unvaccinated, while others have recently lifted anti-COVID restrictions.

Finland to ease restrictions from February

Finland will ease restrictions from February despite a "difficult epidemic situation", officials said.

"The hospital burden is still high, but the most serious forms of the disease are declining and there has been a turn for the better in intensive care," said Finnish health minister Hanna Sarkkinen on Twitter, while encouraging people to get vaccinated.

Restrictions will ease on restaurants, which will be able to stay open until 9:00 pm, the government said. They will be limited to 75% capacity.

Bars, on the other hand, must close at 6:00pm with the serving of alcohol stopped one hour before closing.

"Even if the restaurant has a COVID pass as a condition of admission, it does not exempt you from restrictions on the number of seats or the opening hours," the government said in a statement.

Netherlands allows bars and venues to reopen

The Dutch government has announced that bars, restaurants, museums, theatres, and other cultural venues are to be allowed to re-open under conditions, loosening some of the toughest COVID-19 restrictions in Europe.

Venues have been closed for more than a month while strict quarantine rules have shut a quarter of primary school classes in the Netherlands.

The announcement by Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Tuesday evening comes despite record new coronavirus infection levels, as hospitalisations from the country's Omicron wave have been lower than initially feared.

“We are taking a big step today to unlock the Netherlands while the infections numbers are really going through the roof,” Rutte told a news conference in The Hague, saying the move was not without risks.

The announcement wasn't all good news for the beleaguered hospitality and cultural sectors, with the opening hours limited to 22:00, while professional sports teams will only be allowed to fill stadiums to a third of their normal capacities.

Football clubs and administrators protested against the move even before it was officially announced, calling it in a joint statement "a proposal without perspective".

Pressure from local politicians has pushed Rutte's government to ease the restrictions, especially after mayors from 30 municipalities petitioned the government last week.

There have been widespread protests by business owners ranging from the Van Gogh Museum to local cafes at being excluded from am earlier easing of pandemic restrictions.

"I can't explain why here in Breda IKEA is open but the theatre, where people can safely watch a performance, is closed," said Breda's mayor Paul Depla, speaking before the announcement.

The Dutch national public health institute reported a 51% rise in new COVID-19 cases over the last week to more than 366,000, while intensive care admissions dropped by 34%.

Denmark announces easing

Authorities in Denmark have announced that restrictions currently in force, including early closures for bars and restaurants as well as face mask mandates, will be lifted on February 1.

Some entry requirements will however be maintained for a further four weeks, such as mandatory testing and/or quarantine requirements based on the country of origin.

Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said the easing will go ahead despite the high infection rate — the country recorded 46,000 new cases on Tuesday — because it expects the peak to be reached soon.

"We have a good control of the hospitalisation rates, thanks to the combination of the 3.5 million Danes now revaccinated and the less severe nature of Omicron," he said.

The number of COVID hospitalisations has risen in recent days to exceed 900 patients but health authorities believe they can cope with the burden.

Almost 60% of the Danish population of 5.8 million have received a booster dose, a month ahead of the schedule set by the health authorities.

"We can start lowering our shoulders and start finding the right smile again," said Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.

No easing of coronavirus measures in Germany

In Germany, a meeting between federal leaders and chancellor Olaf Scholz concluded that high infection rates left no room to relax the current tight restrictions on private gatherings and large meetings.

"It is time to stay the course," German chancellor Olaf Scholz said in Berlin on Monday, for whom it became apparent that the access restrictions that have been in place for months should remain in place in the workplaces, on buses, trains, restaurants, and shops.

Scholz was echoed by the State Premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Hendrik Wuest, who added that "experts of the federal government are considering an overload of the health system."

"The council of experts has given a clear warning: the infection trend requires the maintenance of and the strict adhesion to the current measures," Wuest went on.

On Friday, German health Minister Karl Lauterbach reiterated that the surge in cases remains "under control".

Lauterbach told reporters in Berlin that the infection rate among the elderly - many of whom remain unvaccinated - is much lower than the average.

On Thursday, Germany reported more than 200,000 new daily coronavirus cases for the first time.

Austria announces end of lockdown for the unvaccinated

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said on Wednesday that the lockdown for unvaccinated residents will end on 31 January.

Nehammer said the measure, which was introduced in November, was no longer needed because there was no threat of hospital intensive care units being overstretched.

The lockdown will expire one day before a COVID-19 vaccine mandate — the first of its kind in Europe — takes effect in the country.

Officials have said the mandate is necessary because vaccination rates remain too low. So far, 75.4% of the country's residents have been fully vaccinated.

From mid-March, police will start checking people’s vaccination status during routine checks; people who can’t produce proof of vaccination will be asked to do so in writing and will be fined up to €600 euros if they don’t.

Croatian opposition petitions for COVID-19 inquiry

Meanwhile, in Croatia, opposition lawmakers handed in signatures for two petitions to the speaker of Croatia's parliament in Zagreb on Monday, in the hope they will force a national referendum on the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The group leading the initiative, the conservative populist party "Most" ("The Bridge"), seeks to challenge the authority of the coronavirus task force and wants a referendum that would pave the way for transferring any virus-related decision-making powers to parliament.

"Most", which has eight MPs in the 151-seat parliament, also wants the people to be able to decide on whether or not to abolish the mandatory COVID-19 passes currently required for employees and customers at some public services, such as post offices and hospitals.

Croatia, which has high levels of vaccine-hesitancy in Europe as well as some of the laxest coronavirus restrictions, introduced mandatory COVID-19 certificates for all employees of public and state services in November.

The passes are available to anyone who has been vaccinated, anyone who has recovered from the virus, or anyone who has recently tested negative.

The move was met with large protests by pandemic-fatigued Croatians and was criticised by several right-wing opposition parties, who then launched initiatives to restrict the government's decision-making powers, arguing that the body handling the pandemic is unconstitutional and that mandating any coronavirus passes is illegal.

If the referendum is given the go-ahead, it could take place in about two months. Only 55% of the population is inoculated against COVID-19 in Croatia.

Russia reduces isolation period

Russian health authorities have shortened the required isolation period for those who come in contact with COVID-19 patients from 14 days to seven, an unprecedented Omicron-driven surge of coronavirus infections rips through the vast country.

Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced the degree on Tuesday (January 25). It only changes the rules for those who had close contact with someone who has COVID-19, not for those with a confirmed infection. Those who test positive are still required to isolate for 14 days, with a mandatory test on day 10 or 11.

Daily new infections in Russia have been rising sharply for the past two weeks, increasing more than four-fold — from about 15,000 on January 10 to 67,809 on Tuesday, the highest daily tally in the pandemic.

However, according to Health Minister Mikhail Murashko, no significant increase in hospitalisations has been seen. Hospital admissions grew by just 6.4%.

Russia’s public healthcare watchdog says more than half of the country's coronavirus infections are in the areas around Moscow and St Petersburg.

On January 26, Russia expanded its vaccine rollout for children aged 12-17 to include more regions, amid the country's biggest infection surge yet due to the spread of Omicron.

Earlier this week, free shots of Sputnik M — a version of the Sputnik V vaccine that contains a smaller dose — became available to that age group in a number of areas spanning from the Moscow region surrounding the capital to the Urals to Siberia and the far east.

On Wednesday, the jab became available to teenagers in Volgograd, Astrakhan, and Kursk. In Moscow, the vaccination campaign will start in the coming days. Those under the age of 15 need parental consent for the shot, while those aged 15-17 can make the decision themselves, authorities said.

France, Romania see new case records

The number of daily infections detected in France crossed the half a million mark for the first time on Tuesday with a new record of 501,635 cases.

The Omicron variants accounted for 95.6% of the positive cases sequenced.

A total of 30,189 COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalised, a level that is close to the peak recorded in November 2020 but the number of patients in critical care units — 3,741 people — is falling slightly.

Hospitals recorded 364 new COVID fatalities, bringing the country's pandemic death toll to 129,489.

Meanwhile, more than 34,250 new infections were confirmed across Romania on Wednesday, almost double its previous record set only a day earlier.

The daily death toll stood at 94, the highest number in more than a month.

Three-quarters of those deaths were unvaccinated people and more than 80% of the 692 COVID-19 patients now in intensive care in Romania have also not been jabbed, official data shows.

Romania, which has seen nearly 60,000 deaths since the pandemic began, is the European Union’s second-least vaccinated nation, with just 41% fully inoculated compared to a bloc average of 70%.

The Czech Republic and Poland are also among those countries that have registered a record number of daily COVID-19 cases this week.

Additional sources • AFP, AP, EBU