The Netherlands entered a strict new lockdown Sunday due to fears over the Omicron coronavirus variant, and the UK’s health minister wouldn’t rule out further restrictions, as Europe braces for a surge in Covid-19 infections over the usually busy festive period.
Indoor gatherings in the Netherlands will now be limited to a maximum of two guests per household until at least mid-January, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced Saturday. That number is extended slightly around Christmas and New Year’s Eve to four guests.
Non-essential shops, hospitality venues and cultural institutions will also be closed, while schools will remain shut until at least January 9.
In a televised address, Rutte said the lockdown was “unavoidable because of the fifth wave that is coming at us with the Omicron variant,” Reuters reported.
Failure to act now would likely lead to “an unmanageable situation in hospitals,” Rutte added.
The Netherlands had already been battling a fresh wave of Covid-19 cases before the Omicron strain reached its shores last month. Some experts are now predicting it will become the dominant variant in the country before the end of the year.
Elsewhere in Europe, there is a looming sense of dread that despite the vaccine rollout, this year’s Christmas will look a lot like 2020 as Omicron spreads at a phenomenal rate in parts of the continent.
London declares ‘major incident’
Elsewhere, the United Kingdom is in the grip of a surge in Omicron infections, with Health Secretary Sajid Javid telling the BBC on Sunday that he could not rule out restrictions before Christmas.
The Omicron variant now accounts for around 60% of Covid-19 cases in England, Javid also told Sky News Sunday.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, Javid said that while a lot was still unknown about the severity of Omicron, the UK did know it was facing “a tsunami of infections in the coming days and weeks.”
“Omicron spreads at a pace we have never seen before and has been doubling about every two to three days. Yesterday saw more than 90,000 new cases reported across the UK. We are extremely confident the number of infections – people with the disease but who have not been confirmed by a test – is significantly higher than that,” Javid wrote on Sunday.
His comments come after London Mayor Sadiq Khan on Saturday declared a “major incident” in the capital due to rapidly rising case numbers. A “major incident” refers to an event requiring special arrangements between emergency services and local authorities.
Khan said Sunday that new Covid-19 restrictions were “inevitable,” on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
The UK in recent weeks reintroduced some measures – including mask-wearing in most indoor public venues and working from home – in an effort to curb infections.
But Khan urged the government to go further. “I think if we don’t bring in new restrictions, sooner rather than later, you’re going to see even more positive cases and potentially public services like the NHS [the UK health service] on the verge of collapse, if not collapsing,” he said.
The government’s Scientific Group for Emergencies (SAGE) also warned that if further coronavirus measures are not introduced very soon, Covid-19 hospital admissions could reach 3,000 a day in England, in a meeting Thursday.
Germany on Sunday added the UK to its list of areas with “variants of concern” – meaning only German citizens and residents will be able to enter the country from the UK.
Across the continent, cities are already canceling New Year festivities amid concerns over rising cases.
France on Friday announced large outdoor events and gatherings will be banned on New Year’s Eve as the country faces its fifth wave of infections, warning that Omicron will become the dominant variant by early 2022.
Denmark has also proposed closing cinemas and theaters, and limiting the numbers of people in shops the week before Christmas, as it attempts to control a spike in cases.
And Rome is among several Italian cities that have decided to cancel New Year’s festivities over coronavirus concerns, authorities said Thursday.
CNN’s Sarah Dean, Martin Goillandeau, George Engels, Niamh Kennedy, Nadine Schmidt, Dalal Mawad and Livia Borghese contributed to this report