MADRID – Covid-19 infections were on the rise across Spain, but the country’s leader’s message was clear: The government was not entering 2022 with the 2020 restrictions.
“The situation is different this time, and because of that we are taking different measures,” Pedro Sánchez, Prime Minister, said this week, adding that he understands that his people have become impatient with the pandemic and that he was “fully aware of the fatigue.
Across Europe, this fatigue is as palpable as the chilled Christmas spirit. Fatigue from another named variant of the coronavirus and another wave of infections. The fatigue of another gloomy year watching New Year’s gatherings be canceled or reduced, one by one.
But with the exhaustion, another feeling takes root: that the coronavirus will not be eradicated with vaccines or lockdowns, but that it has become something endemic that people have to learn to live with, perhaps for the sake of it. coming years.
“We are tired, we are vaccinated and things are not going anywhere,” said Caroline Orieux, who, despite the upsurge in Covid cases, had gone to Paris with her nephews and nieces for a few days of vacation.
This week, the broad outlines of how Europe might handle its latest outbreak were taking shape, at least for now, driven by everything from politics to people’s desperation to move forward, especially at Christmas. . Full lockdowns have mostly given way to less intrusive – and less protective – measures.
Spain kept a light touch, issuing new limited requirements on Thursday, such as a requirement to wear masks outside and an increase in the vaccination campaign.
Even Italy, which suffered a particularly cruel first wave, on Thursday introduced new rules much less rigid than those imposed during its worst days, shortening the period of validity of health, making the third blows essential; ban large outdoor events until the end of January; and by opting for an outdoor mask mandate.
“Vaccines are and remain a fundamental weapon,” said Roberto Speranza, Italian Minister of Health.
Beyond that, there is growing evidence that the new variant is milder, at least for those who are vaccinated. Three studies – in South Africa, England and Scotland – have all suggested that although the variant is more contagious, it likely results in milder disease.
And vaccines appear to be doing their job – reducing the risk of serious illness and hospitalization, recent studies show.
Still, not everyone agrees with a scaled-down approach to tackling the virus, and it’s unclear whether this notion will survive Omicron’s possible crush of hospitalizations many scientists fear. . Even though most cases are mild, they argue, the rapid spread of Omicron could still lead to huge workloads and overwhelming hospitalizations.
Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health in Geneva, said France’s strategy – which went little beyond health passes and stopped imposing tougher measures like shutting down bars – was nowhere near what was needed to avoid a spate of Omicron cases.
“I think it is not the most successful from a health point of view, but also from a social and economic point of view,” he said, noting that a wave of new infections could disrupt services. health, as well as the country’s manufacturing and supply capacities.
Giovanni Maga, director of the Institute of Molecular Genetics of the Italian National Research Council, noted that while hospitalizations were five times lower than last year – largely thanks to vaccines – this does not mean that the country came out of the woods.
“As Omicron is more contagious, contagions will increase,” he said.
Yet, as the pandemic continues, scientists often lose out to politicians. And in the political and economic calculation that has become the core of public health messages for weeks now, the Christmas season has gained momentum.
Switzerland recently rolled back on travel restrictions in an attempt to save a winter tourist season that is the backbone of its economy. At the end of November, it issued quarantine orders for travelers from Britain, the Netherlands and other countries where Omicron had spread – only to suppress them, even when cases increased.
On Monday, the country also removed the requirement that travelers be tested after arrival, although it still requires negative tests before travel.
Asseghid Dinberu, marketing director at Hotel Victoria in the Swiss ski resort of Villars, said the Christmas season looked like “a lucky getaway”, with just six of the hotel’s 138 rooms still vacant for the day of. Christmas, and the hotel was full. for the new Year.
“I am happy that Switzerland has finally opted for a very pragmatic approach that will allow us to benefit economically compared to other countries,” he said.
Germany is emerging from a dramatic fourth wave that began in November, and although bracing for a wave of infections at Omicron, government officials have downplayed the possibility of an increase in infections around Christmas gatherings . Many see this as an attempt to spare the Germans from restrictions before their most important vacation.
“At the moment, we are in a strange interval,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at a press conference on Tuesday. “The measures we put in place at the end of November are working. “
However, just before Mr Scholz and state governors meet to develop new measures this week, the Robert Koch Institute, the German equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called for strict lockdown measures for start immediately. The government did not adopt the measures.
The many conflicting messages have caused confusion among Europeans who yearn for the ease of Christmas past. Some continued despite the fears.
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“I’m a little worried because we don’t know much about Omicron,” Susanne Sesterer, 63, retired in Hanover, Germany, said Thursday as she did her final shopping before Christmas. “But how much worse can it be?” “
Others gave up.
Dorotea Belli, a 42-year-old Italian who received two doses of the vaccine, said she would not be going to a family reunion for Christmas and would instead stay at home in Rome. Many of her colleagues have tested positive for the virus, she said, and her children, 4 and 1, are not eligible for vaccination.
“My parents will miss them and I very much,” she said. “But I don’t want to bring back the Covid, and even though my husband and I are vaccinated, who knows?”
Spain’s calculation on the new restrictions not only takes into account the very important holidays, but also the legal barriers that have arisen after the measures taken by the government in 2020.
In July, Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled that the government did not have the power to impose the lockdown measures that began in March 2020, which prevented Spaniards from leaving their homes, except for essential trips like food shopping. . Instead, the judges said, the measures required a full parliamentary vote, which few will see with a majority in the future given how controversial the previous restrictions were.
“The government has its hands tied now,” said Luis Galán Soldevilla, professor of law at the University of Cordoba.
The lighter measures announced by Spain on Thursday have been criticized by some sectors, such as the Spanish Society of Public Health and Health Administration, a group that includes many health professionals.
“These measures are not helping much,” said Ildefonso Hernández, spokesman for the group, saying limiting capacity indoors would be more effective. “It doesn’t make sense for people to walk down the street with a mask on and then take it off when they walk into a bar. “
In Madrid, residents were moving forward with their Christmas plans, despite the increased number of cases and risks.
Fernando Sánchez, 55, a taxi driver, lost his mother and brother to Covid-19 six months ago. Nonetheless, he was unwilling to cancel his Christmas plans, which are taking place this year at his in-laws’ home, just as they had done before the pandemic.
Antonio Jesús Navarro, 33, a software engineer, was looking forward to spending Christmas with his girlfriend, who had traveled to Spain for vacation from the United States. The two had not seen each other since the start of the pandemic.
But then Mr Navarro learned he had come into contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. The couple isolated themselves until they could get their own test results. He said he was frustrated with the public messages about how to protect himself from Omicron.
“Is an antigen test acceptable?” He said over the phone. “What if there are no symptoms? “
Hours later, Mr Navarro called back to say that he and his girlfriend had tested positive for Covid-19.
Nicolas casey and Jose bautista brought back from Madrid, and Constant Meheut from Paris. The report was provided by Raphael Minder from Geneva; Gaia Pianigiani From Rome; Christopher F. Schuetze from Hanover, Germany; and Léontine Welsh from Paris.