British surge seen as warning on omicron but responses vary

Spiraling infections in Britain driven in part by the new omicron variant of the coronavirus rattled many in Europe on Thursday, fueling a familiar dread that tighter restrictions will scuttle holiday plans again this year.

Much remains unknown about omicron, but increasingly officials are warning that at the very least it appears more transmissible than the delta variant, which was already putting pressure on hospitals from the United States to the Netherlands. With so many questions outstanding, uncertainty reigned over how quickly and how severely to crack down on end-of-year travel and Christmas parties.

After the U.K. recorded the highest number of confirmed new COVID-19 infections Wednesday since the pandemic began, France announced Thursday that it would tighten entry rules for those coming from Britain.

In England, the chief medical officer urged people to limit who they see in the festive period — though there has been much debate about how much should be canceled. In the U.S., meanwhile, the White House insisted there was no need for a lockdown, despite signs that omicron was gaining ground there.

Globally, more than 75 countries have reported confirmed cases of the new variant. In Britain, where omicron cases are doubling every two to three days, the variant is expected to soon replace delta as the dominant strain in the country. Authorities in the 27-nation European Union say omicron will be the dominant variant in the bloc by mid-January.

In addition to hints that it’s more contagious, early data suggest omicron may be milder but better at evading vaccines — making booster shots more crucial. Experts have urged caution in particular on drawing conclusions about how mild it is because hospitalizations lag behind infections and so many variables contribute to how sick people get.

Also, even if omicron proves milder on the whole than delta, it may disarm some of the lifesaving tools available and put immune-compromised and elderly people at particular risk. And if it’s more transmissible, more infections overall raise the risk of more serious ones.

While experts gather more data, some governments rushed to act, while others sought to calm fears that the new variant would land countries back on square one.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted Thursday that the situation in the U.K. is different from last year because of the widespread use of vaccines and the ability to test.

While Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, advised people to limit their social contacts, putting a priority on those that are the most important, Johnson struck a less severe note.

Johnson said that if people want to attend an event "the sensible thing to do is to get a test and to make sure that you’re being cautious.”

"But we’re not saying that we want to cancel stuff, we’re not locking stuff down, and the fastest route back to normality is to get boosted," he said.

Nonetheless, Queen Elizabeth II opted to cancel her traditional pre-Christmas family lunch as cases soared.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, has been in a partial lockdown since November to curb a delta-driven surge and while infection numbers are declining now the government this week ordered elementary schools to close for Christmas a week early amid fears omicron will fuel a new rise. Authorities also sped up a vaccination booster campaign as caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte cited Britain as an example of how swiftly the variant can spread.

EU leaders gathering in Brussels for a summit Thursday sought to balance tackling the surge of infections across the continent while keeping borders open with common policies throughout the bloc.

"Let’s try to maintain the European solution," Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said. "If every country goes it alone again we’ll be even further from home."

But ahead of the meeting, European nations already were acting to rein in the spread of the virus. Greece and Italy tightened entry requirements for travelers earlier this week, and Portugal decided to keep stricter border controls in place beyond their planned Jan. 9 end.

On Thursday, France said it will slap restrictions on travelers arriving from the U.K. — which is no longer part of the EU — putting limits on reasons for traveling and requiring 48-hour isolation upon arrival. The new measures will take effect first thing Saturday.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex said the measures are being imposed "in the face of the extremely rapid spread of the omicron variant in the U.K."

The abrupt move comes after weeks of political tensions between France and Britain over fishing rights and how to deal with migration in dangerous small boats across the English Channel.

It also comes as France’s government is desperately trying to avoid a new lockdown or stricter measures that would hurt the economy and cloud President Emmanuel Macron’s expected campaign for April presidential elections.

Britain said it was not planning reciprocal measures. The prime minister’s spokesman, Max Blain, said travel bans "wouldn’t be effective or proportionate."

Fearing a raft of canceled parties and a general drop in business at the height of the crucial and lucrative Christmas season, British restaurants and pubs demanded government help Thursday. They said concerns about the new variant have already wiped out 2 billion pounds ($2.6 billion) in sales over the last 10 days.

Across London, restaurants which would normally see bustling crowds clinking glasses and tucking into festive meals were reporting droves of cancellations and empty rooms.

"It’s a complete nightmare…. This week should be the busiest week of the year for hospitality," said Sally Abé, a chef at the Conrad Hotel in central London. "It’s everywhere, everybody’s canceling, but there’s no support from the government."

She said the hotel has lost all private dining room hires for the Christmas period.

The Music Venue Trust said that a catastrophic drop in attendance and advance ticket sales have hit the industry since the government announced tougher restrictions last Wednesday, "placing the entire sector back on red alert for the risk of permanent closures."