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UK reticence on tough curbs put to the test

China Daily | Updated: 2021-12-13 09:54

A security guard stands by a sign asking customers to wear masks at a store in London on Saturday. PETER NICHOLLS/REUTERS

Surge amid Omicron's march leaves scientists looking to stricter measures

LONDON-Britain may need to introduce tougher restrictions to slow the growth of the Omicron variant and prevent a fresh surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, the country's scientists said on Saturday.

The government has indicated its resistance to the kind of far-reaching curbs brought in earlier in the pandemic, though it has acted to require that people wear masks in most indoors settings and show vaccine certificates to enter nightclubs.

For policymakers in London, sensitivities about curbs on movement are on show in a number of European cities.

In Vienna, tens of thousands rallied on Saturday in protest against restrictions in Austria, including mandatory COVID-19 vaccines and home confinement orders for the unvaccinated. Similar bouts of anger bubbled up in Spain and Luxembourg.

As for Britain, many scientists say the measures brought in by the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson are unlikely to be enough.

UK health officials say Omicron is spreading much more quickly than the Delta strain and is likely to replace it as the dominant variant in Britain within days. The UK recorded 58,194 coronavirus cases on Friday, the highest number since January. And another 633 Omicron cases were confirmed that day in Britain, the biggest daily increase since the variant was detected in the country, taking the total cases found in the country to 1,898, health authorities said on Saturday.

Modeling published on Saturday by scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggested Omicron is likely to cause a large wave of infections by January, and could cause between 25,000 and 75,000 deaths in England in the next five months if no other measures are taken.

The most pessimistic scenario foresees half a million people hospitalized with the virus by the end of April, with daily hospital admissions doubling the previous peak in January. The study by the scientists, who help advise the British government, has not been peer reviewed.

The number of infections will depend on how much the variant escapes protection from vaccines, and how effective booster shots are at bolstering immunity, both of which remain unclear.

Rosanna Barnard of the school's Center for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases said: "Our most pessimistic scenario suggests that we may have to endure more stringent restrictions to ensure the (health service) is not overwhelmed."

Johnson's government says it only considers "practical" measures such as the extension of booster jabs, with policymakers mindful of the scenes of unrest that have played out in many parts of Europe.

Ongoing protests

In Vienna, about 1,400 police officers were called out to keep watch at the Saturday protest, which attracted an estimated 44,000 people, and followed a similar demonstration in the Austrian capital the previous week.

Police said three people were arrested for offenses including the use of fireworks and disregarding the requirement to wear masks. Journalists covering the event, which began in Heldenplatz square, were attacked with snow balls and ice, and one reporter was the victim of an attempted assault, police said.

On Sunday, Austria ended lockdown restrictions for vaccinated people across most of the country following the protests.

In tense scenes witnessed in Luxembourg, several hundred protesters were kept under close surveillance by the police, who used a water cannon and carried out arrests, according to 24 News Recorder, a news website. The focus of their anger are the restrictions linked to a health pass.

A health pass is also required in Spain, where police said about 1,000 people demonstrated in Barcelona against the rule.

Demonstrators in Catalonia held a banner with wording that equated the health passport with a totalitarian state, according to the news website Fox26newshenry.

Catalonia required the so-called COVID Passport for nightclubs, but extended it to include bars late last month.

Agencies via Xinhua

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