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COVID: Europe could be heading for 'a long period pandemic tranquillity'

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By Euronews & AP
Unvaccinated people are still not allowed in France's restaurants, bars, or cultural venues.
Unvaccinated people are still not allowed in France's restaurants, bars, or cultural venues.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Thibault Camus

Europe is now entering a "plausible endgame" to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

WHO Europe director Dr Hans Kluge told a press briefing on Thursday that the number of coronavirus deaths across the continent is starting to plateau.

Dr Kluge said this could be due to the lower severity of the Omicron variant, as well as warmer weather making it harder for the virus to spread.

"I wish to reiterate the firm call I made last week which is indeed referring to a plausible endgame for the pandemic – not to say that it is now all over – but to highlight that in the European Region, there is a singular opportunity to take control of the transmission," he said.

"This context – that we have not experienced so far in this pandemic – leaves us with the possibility for a long period of tranquillity and a much higher level of population defence against any re-surge in transmission, even with a more virulent variant."

But WHO has urged countries to continue vaccinating citizens against the virus.

Scientists have repeatedly warned that unless the majority of the world’s population is vaccinated, the coronavirus will keep spreading means and may mutate into deadlier and more contagious forms.

Some countries, like Spain, are considering whether COVID-19 is now an endemic problem and be handled more like seasonal flu.

Others -- such as the Czech Republic and Italy -- are planning to ease some restrictions in the coming weeks.

On Tuesday, the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that it was too early for countries to declare victory over COVID-19.

"More transmission means more deaths," Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference.

"We are concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines and the high transmissibility of Omicron, and its lesser severity, preventing transmission is no longer possible," he added.

"We are not asking any country to reinstate containment. But we are calling on all countries to protect their populations using all available tools, not just vaccines."

Kluge noted that there were 12 million new coronavirus cases across WHO’s European region last week, the highest single weekly total during the pandemic.

He said that spike was driven by the hugely infectious omicron variant, but admissions to hospital intensive care units haven’t risen significantly.

EU proposes extending COVID certificates

Despite the WHO announcement, the European Commission has proposed extending the use of COVID-19 certificates by a year.

Health passes for travel across the bloc would remain valid until July 2023 under the proposals.

“At this stage it is not possible to determine the impact of a possible increase in infections in the second half of 2022 or of the emergence of new variants,” the Commission said.

Didier Reynders, the EU commissioner for justice, added that failure to extend the scheme could lead to “confusion and obstacles” if it expires while the pandemic is not over.

To come into effect, the extension proposal must be accepted by EU member states and the European Parliament.

France, Denmark and Sweden lift restrictions

France on Wednesday became the latest European country to begin lifting anti-COVID restrictions, despite a high number of infections.

Face masks will no longer be mandatory outdoors while stadiums, cultural venues and outdoor venues are no longer limited to a certain capacity.

Indoor concert halls had previously been limited to only 2,000 people, while outdoor areas were held to just 5,000 capacity.

But French citizens will still require proof of vaccination or recovery to enter bars, restaurants, other venues and use long-distance public transport. Nightclubs will remain closed in France until a planned reopening on February 16.

Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said a reduction in new case numbers in recent days was "very encouraging" but urged people to "remain cautious".

The number of patients in intensive care in France has remained almost stable over the week at around 3,700 people, but hospital admissions continue to rise.

Denmark had earlier announced on Tuesday that it would scrap most of its pandemic restrictions as COVID-19 is no longer “a socially critical disease”.

Copenhagen has in recent weeks seen more than 50,000 daily cases on average while the number of people in hospital intensive care units has dropped.

Despite the surge in Omicron variant cases, the high vaccination rate has prevented a large strain on the health system.

More than 80% of the population is fully vaccinated and more than 60% of the population has a booster dose.

“I dare not say that it is a final goodbye to restrictions. We do not know what will happen to the fall. Whether there will be a new variant,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told Danish radio.

Sweden on Thursday also announced that it will remove coronavirus restrictions from February 9.

“It is time to open Sweden again,” said Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson. "The pandemic is not over but has entered a totally new phase".

Sweden will no longer limit restaurant capacities or opening hours, while vaccination certificates and facemasks will not be required on public transport.

But social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren told reporters that authorities “will continue to be vigilant about how the pandemic will develop.”

Austria to introduce vaccine mandate this week

Austria is set this week to become the first country in Europe to introduce a national COVID-19 vaccine mandate for adults.

All citizens aged 18 and over will need to be fully vaccinated against the virus or face fines of up to €3,600.

They will have until 15 March to comply with the new legislation which is set to be approved from 3 February, according to the health ministry.

Pregnant women and people who for medical reasons can't be vaccinated will be exempted, as will people who have recovered from infection in the past six months.

The EU member state also plans to loosen coronavirus restrictions, with restaurants allowed to remain open until midnight on Saturday.

Meanwhile, unvaccinated citizens will no longer be barred from entering shops and restaurants in a phasing out of anti-COVID measures later this month.

Chancellor Karl Nehammer also announced on Saturday that lockdown restrictions for vaccinated people, which have been in place since November, will end on Monday.

The changes come despite record-high new infection numbers in recent days, fuelled by the omicron variant. But Nehammer said the low rate of hospitalisations means additional steps forward are possible.

Germany misses vaccination target but lifts some measures

Neighbouring Germany is also currently debating a possible wide-ranging coronavirus vaccine mandate.

On Monday, the government confirmed that it was set to miss a target of giving at least one shot of coronavirus vaccine to 80% of the population by the end of January.

Official statistics show that 75.8% of Germany’s population have received at least one shot, while 74% are fully vaccinated and 52.8% have also received a booster.

The target “has been missed,” government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit acknowledged at a regular news conference.

While the number of people getting boosters has risen quickly, the proportion of the population getting a first shot has only crept higher in recent weeks.

On Wednesday, the country's 16 state governors confirmed that outdoor events could expand their capacity to 10,000 people.

Up to 4,000 people will now also be allowed to attend indoor events, while still wearing masks and after presenting a valid health pass.

Germany registered a record number of cases on Wednesday, with 208,498 new daily infections.

Russia & Romania also register new case records

Russia’s daily tally of new coronavirus infections surged to more than 155,000 on Thursday, an all-time high.

This represents a tenfold increase compared with the beginning of January when only around 15,000 new cases per day were registered.

The state coronavirus task force also reported that 668 people died of COVID-19 in the past day, bringing Russia’s total coronavirus-related deaths to 330,728, by far the largest in Europe.

Russia’s state statistics agency puts the country’s pandemic death toll much higher, saying the number of virus-linked deaths between April 2020 and October 2021 was over 625,000.

Despite the surging infections, authorities have avoided imposing any major restrictions, saying the country's health system has been coping with the influx of patients.

This week health officials cut the required isolation period for contact cases from 14 days to 7 days. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated to reporters on Monday that there were no discussions of a nationwide lockdown.

A record number of new coronavirus infections was also registered in Romania on Tuesday, with 40,018 in the previous 24 hours.

But although the number of hospitalisations is also rising, hospitals are reporting that they are coping better than the previous wave of cases in October and November.

Romania is still the European Union's second-least vaccinated country after Bulgaria, with only roughly 41% of the population having received two doses.

On Tuesday, Romania removed quarantine restrictions on travellers if they are vaccinated, have a negative test or have recently recovered from infection.

Andorra to lift most restrictions, except nightclubs

The Andorran government announced on Tuesday that it was lifting most of the country's COVID-19 restrictions.

Health Minister Joan Martínez Benazet told reporters that a drop in the number of new infections had taken place "a little sooner than expected".

Face masks will no longer be needed outdoors, while all measures have been removed for restaurants, bars, and public transport.

Masks and health passes will still be required inside many venues in Andorra however, the government said.

Nightclubs will remain closed for now but could reopen with "certain limitations" in a week's time if the situation improves, Martínez Benazet added.

Cyprus Catholic church suspends unvaccinated priests

The head of Cyprus’ Orthodox Christian Church said that he will suspend a dozen priests from his diocese because they refused to heed his call to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Archbishop Chrystostomos II called their insubordination “unheard of” and warned that the suspensions could be extended to six months or lead to the priests being defrocked.

He suggested that some of the unvaccinated priests may be emboldened to defy him because of his frail health. The archbishop has been vocal in his support for vaccinations for all the faithful.

COVID-19 infections in Cyprus have in recent weeks remain high but health authorities say the system is coping.

Additional sources • AFP