Europe works to keep schools, hospitals open amid omicron
Europe is trying to tackle one of the world’s worst Covid-19 outbreaks by streamlining quarantine rules and prioritizing reopening schools on time after the holiday break, rather than clamping down.
The strategy is part of a more measured approach to fighting the virus despite an omicron-driven surge in infections. The continent has again become the epicenter of the pandemic, currently accounting for 10 of the world’s worst outbreaks, according to Oscovida data.
While some restrictions were tightened late last year, strict curbs are a rarity.
Schools in France have already resumed after the Christmas break, and Ireland and Greece announced on Tuesday they would restart classes as scheduled. Ireland’s government said it was advised that there’s “no public health rationale to delay the reopening.”
Germany is considering sharpening curbs on contacts to head off a bigger omicron surge, with Health Minister Karl Lauterbach saying he’ll propose additional unspecified measures at Friday’s talks with regional leaders led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
In Germany and across Europe, governments are focusing on loosening isolation rules to mitigate the risk of staff shortages in hospitals, care centers and other critical services. France on Monday shortened quarantine times, following a similar move in the U.K. Germany will discuss such a step on Friday.
It’s a sign that priorities have shifted to keeping economies functioning rather than imposing lockdowns that could put recoveries at risk. Widespread vaccine campaigns and studies showing that omicron causes less severe symptoms have given authorities leeway to take a softer line.
Schools in the U.K. are also reopening this week, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that tougher restrictions would come with a cost.
“If we all play our part in containing the spread of this virus, the disruptions can be far less severe than a national lockdown with all the devastation that would bring for the livelihoods and life chances of our children,” Johnson said Tuesday.
French children returned to class Monday under new rules that lean heavily on testing. German officials have said schools would only be shut as a last resort, and the country last month expanded inoculations to kids as young as five.
In Ireland, children are scheduled to return to school on Thursday. The country’s contagion rate rose to nearly 2,500 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days -- the highest in Europe as of Monday.
Netherlands is an outlier in Europe currently, as it’s still in a lockdown that’s closed non-essential stores, bars and restaurants.
But most countries are approaching the battle differently thanks to the vaccine rollouts and the milder omicron symptoms. Belgium, for example, decided Tuesday that as of Jan. 10, it will no longer require people with high-risk contacts to quarantine if they had their booster shot or second dose, or recovered from Covid-19 within five months.
Cases in intensive care in Germany are about a third lower than the peak a year ago, when infection rates were almost twice as high. That’s despite a relatively low vaccination rate of 71%.
In Ireland, 91% of people over 12 years old were fully vaccinated as of Sunday -- among the highest in Europe -- and 52% had received a booster shot. The number of people in hospitals and intensive care units remain well below their peaks a year ago, when there were fewer than half as many cases.
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