COMPARE: How Europe is ending 2021 with record Covid rates and new restrictions

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COMPARE: How Europe is ending 2021 with record Covid rates and new restrictions
Few pedestrians walk in the empty central street of La Rambla, in Barcelona, on the night of December 23 to December 24, 2021, as Spain's Catalonia reimposes a night-time curfew, closes nightclubs and limits social gatherings to fight a record surge in Covid-19 infections. (Photo by ANGEL GARCIA / AFP)

European countries are battling a huge spike in Covid infections driven by the Omicron variant but some countries are hit worse than others and strategies to fight the pandemic vary. Here's a run-through of the state of play as 2021 draws to a close.


In recent weeks countries across Europe have seen Covid infection rates soar at a pace not witnessed since the start of the pandemic. 

Ahead of the traditional New Year festivities some governments in Europe have opted to enforce lockdowns and curfews whilst others have opted to keep things fairly open by enforcing vaccine passes.

Here's a breakdown from The Local's teams across Europe on the state of the pandemic in their country and how the start of another New Year has been hit by restrictions.


What is the state of the pandemic in Germany at the end of 2021?

After a powerful fourth wave that saw Germany reporting as many as 75,000 infections in a day, the weekly incidence of new Covid cases has started to trail off in the past few weeks. After Christmas, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections dropped down to 207 per 100,000 people, though experts believe this could partially due to underreporting and a lack of testing over the holidays

However, hospitalisations and deaths are still high, with the government reporting 383 Covid-related deaths within a single day on Thursday. 

Since the Omicron variant was discovered in South Africa, Germany's public health authority - the Robert Koch Institute - has been tracking cases of the variant on German soil. As of December 30th, 16,748 confirmed and suspected cases of Omicron had been reported to the RKI, up from 10,443 the previous day. Experts believe the variant is likely to become dominant in Germany within a fortnight.

What are the main restrictions currently in place?

In crunch talks ahead of Christmas, the federal and state governments agreed to tighten up contact restrictions and order the closure of clubs in the run-up to New Year's Eve. Currently, up to ten vaccinated or recovered people can meet privately at a time, though this is reduced to two households if an unvaccinated person is present. Large gatherings and fireworks are banned over New Year. 

Some states have also placed curfews on bars and restaurants and ordered further closures of culture and leisure venues. 

For the public venues that have remained open, only vaccinated (geimpft) and recovered (genesen) people are allowed to enter - a system known as '2G'. The rule applies to the majority of indoor public spaces, including cinemas, gyms and retail outlets, though essential shops are excluded. Some events and higher risk venues like saunas have a '2G-plus' entry policy in place, meaning a negative test is required alongside proof of vaccination or recovery. People who have had a booster jab are exempt from the testing requirement. 

On both local and long-distance public transport, a '3G' rule applies, meaning passengers must carry proof that they are vaccinated (geimpft), recovered (genesen) or have a negative test result (getestet). 


What is the state of the pandemic in France at the end of 2021?

France has reported its highest ever Covid case rates, with 200,000 new cases reported in a single day. While part of this may be driven by increased testing - the French government advises anyone who plans to travel or meet friends and relatives over the holidays to take a test - there's no doubt that case numbers are seeing a sustained upward trend that shows few signs of slowing. 


More worryingly for the government, Covid patients in intensive care have now topped 3,000 - a key indicator that health services are under pressure. Of those who are in intensive care, 80 percent are unvaccinated, according to health minister Olivier Véran, who added that of the remaining 20 percent, the great majority had compromised immune systems due to underlying illnesses. Deaths have also risen and are currently standing at around 170 a day.

What are the main restrictions currently in place?

France has since the summer required a health pass - showing proof of vaccination, recent recovery from Covid or a negative test - to enter a wide range of venues including bars, cafés, restaurants, gyms, leisure centres, tourist sites and long-distance train travel. The mask rule remained in place for indoor public places and public transport. 

However in recent weeks there have been new announcements that have tightened the rules, as well as a proposal - subject to agreement from MPs - to convert the health pass into a vaccine pass, so that unvaccinated people cannot access venues such as bars and gyms.

New restrictions include a limit on public gatherings - maximum 2,000 people indoors and 5,000 outdoors - compulsory remote working for at least three days a week for those who can and the closure of nightclubs.

Meanwhile many local authorities - including those in Paris and its suburbs - have brought back rules making masks compulsory outdoors.

France has also tightened up its travel rules, requiring a negative Covid test from all arrivals from outside the EU, even those who are fully vaccinated, and imposing a more or less complete ban on travel between France and the UK. You can find full details on France's travel rules here



What is the state of the pandemic in Sweden at the end of 2021?

After a calmer early winter than many European countries, Sweden’s Covid rate is now clearly rising – and fast. In the week of Christmas, the number of confirmed new cases increased 14 percent, according to a preliminary analysis by the Public Health Agency.

It is clear that the infection rate is going up, although it’s hard to get exact data due to what is likely a drop in testing over the holidays. The death rate remains low, but the number of people in need of intensive care is increasing. The last week of 2021 has seen more than 100 Covid patients in intensive care – fewer than last winter, but the highest number since mid-June.

According to a preliminary analysis of positive tests, the number of cases of the new Omicron variant ranged from three to 51 percent across various regions last week. The Public Health Agency has previously said it believes it will be the dominant variant by mid-January.

More than 85 percent of over-12s have had at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, and almost 30 percent of over-18s have had their booster dose. One of Sweden's 21 regions (Kalmar) has cut the number of months between the second and third dose to five months for all adults, but the Public Health Agency confirmed to The Local that its general recommendation remains six months, but five months for over-65s.


What are the main restrictions currently in place?

Foreign nationals have to show a negative Covid test to be allowed to enter Sweden, regardless of whether or not they are vaccinated and regardless of which country they’re travelling from – but residents are among the groups exempt from this requirement.

Public events with more than 20 guests may only take place if all guests are seated, and must require either a vaccine pass or have various physical distancing rules in place. In practice, this means that for example a lot of cinemas now require vaccine passes.

All public events with over 500 people must require both a vaccine pass and physical distancing, and private events in rented venues may not have more than 50 guests. There aren’t any vaccine pass rules for restaurants, but they may only serve seated guests.

In addition to this there are also several recommendations in place, including that everyone should get tested after entering Sweden (even if they had to show a test on the border), wear a face mask on busy public transport, and work from home if they can.


What is the state of the pandemic in Switzerland at the end of 2021?

The number of Switzerland’s Covid infections has soared to more than 17,000 on December 29 — the highest ever and 4,000 higher than any previous daily figure.

Experts predict it could exceed the 20,000-mark in January, with the Omicron variant now dominant in the country, accounting for nearly 58 percent of all cases on December 30.

Hospital officials are sounding the alarm about the worsening situation in their ICUs — many of which are on the brink of reaching their full capacities — with triage becoming a possibility in the near future.

What are the main restrictions currently in place?

The last measures authorities introduced, on December 20, are still in place, unchanged despite the deteriorating epidemiological situation.

These measures are the so-called  2G and 2G-Plus rules. The former means only people who are fully vaccinated or recovered from Covid in the past four months can enter indoor places like restaurants, or cultural and sports events. Being seated while eating or drinking is required at these venues.  

EXPLAINED: Here are Switzerland's expanded Covid measures

The latter rule, 2G-Plus, applies in situations where the requirement to be seated while eating or drinking can’t be met — for example in bars and clubs — and masks can’t be worn.

“In settings where masks cannot be worn, such as brass band practice, or where it is not possible to eat or drink while seated, admission will be limited to vaccinated or recovered persons who also present a negative test result,” the government said.

However, “people who within the last four months have been fully vaccinated, received a booster or recovered from COVID-19 do not have to take a further test”.

EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland's 2G-Plus rule?

Since introducing these two measures, the federal government has not done much else to rein in the spread, although several measures have been adopted at a cantonal level. 

As it has done on other occasions throughout the pandemic, the Federal Council, which is responsible for managing the crisis, has taken a ‘wait and see’ approach.

Health Minister Alain Berset said on Wednesday, December 29th, that “the time has not yet come for the Federal Council to take new measures to fight the pandemic”but warned more measures were likely.


What is the state of the pandemic in Austria at the end of 2021?

While the Covid situation is worsening across the continent, Austria's nationwide lockdown - put in place on November 22nd - has helped to curb the country's skyrocketing Covid case rate and increases in hospitalisations. 

The nationwide Covid incidence rate - the number of new cases per 100,000 people - is at 188.5 as at December 29th. At the start of the month, it was approaching 800

That said, the threat of the Omicron variant - which is dominant in Vienna and likely to be widespread in other states (Vienna is the only state to undertake widespread screening for variants) - has forced authorities to announce that new measures are on the horizon

From February, Covid vaccinations will become mandatory for everyone in Austria, making it the first European nation to put in place such a widespread vaccine mandate. 

Currently, 70 percent of the population was fully vaccinated as at December 27th, exactly one year since the vaccination campaign started. 

‘Impfpflicht’: How will Austria’s mandatory vaccination law work in practice?

What are the main restrictions currently in place?

On Monday December 27th, a new curfew came into effect which means the gastronomy sector in Austria (including in hotels) must now close at 10pm. This includes New Year’s Eve.

Private gatherings of up to 25 people with 2G proof will be permitted, but if they are indoor and without assigned seating, FFP2 masks are compulsory, and the authorities requested that people reduce their contacts as much as possible.

If assigned seating is available, the maximum number of people rises to 500 if everyone has proof of 2G (full vaccination or recovery); 1,000 for 2G+ (full vaccination or recovery and a negative PCR test), and 2,000 if people have 2G+ and a booster dose. FFP2 masks will also be required.

READ MORE: What will happen with the pandemic in Austria in 2022?


What is the state of the pandemic in Denmark at the end of 2021?

Infection numbers are almost off the scale in Denmark with 23,228 new cases registered on Wednesday, breaking the previous record (set two days earlier) by more than 7,000. Thursday saw another 21,403 new cases registered.

Even before the latest, towering figures were posted, Denmark was on Monday considered to have the highest reported Covid-19 infection rates in the world. In Copenhagen, the seven-day incidence for the virus is 2,591 per 100,000 residents.

The startling numbers for daily infections fortunately do not tell the full story. The total number of persons in hospital with Covid-19 is 665 at the time of writing (this can include people in hospital for unrelated reasons who test positive for Covid-19 during their stay). The peak number of admitted patients from the winter 2020 wave reached 964 on January 4th this year, amid far lower infection numbers.

But the number of people in hospital with the virus is increasing. It was 517 two weeks ago on December 16th and 439 on December 1st.

A senior medical consultant said in response to Wednesday’s figures that “we should all expect to be infected (in Denmark)”. Hospitalisations are "starting to get to the level where it begins to hurt,” he also said.

What are the main restrictions currently in place?

Denmark has refrained from introducing lockdown-style restrictions as seen in earlier phases of the pandemic, even as infection numbers far outstrip those of previous waves. The government has cited protection provided by the country's high vaccination rate (around 77 percent for two doses and 45 percent for the booster dose) and hospitalisation numbers as justification for keeping society broadly open, and has stressed it wants to reopen schools on schedule on January 5th.

Some restrictions are in place in an effort to limit community transmission, however. These include requirements for a coronapas, the country's Covid-19 health pass, at businesses such restaurants and gyms and in public sector and adult educational settings. Theatres, cinemas and museums are closed. Face masks must be worn on public transport and in stores. Alcohol sales are banned after 10pm.

Travellers to Denmark must take a Covid-19 test prior to travel for non-residents, or within 24 hours of arrival for Danish citizens and residents (with some exemptions). Entry quarantine is not currently in broad use.


What is the state of the pandemic in Norway at the end of 2021 

Compared to the record 6,000 plus daily cases it registered in mid-December, cases have levelled off over the Christmas period. Experts have warned that the recent lower figures (the current seven-day rolling average is 3,777 daily cases) are due to fewer people testing rather than the spread of infection slowing

Hospitalisations are also down from their mid-December peak of 383. However, the number of patients in hospitals with the disease still remains high. As of December 30th, 326 patients were in hospital with Covid-19. Of those, 115 are in intensive care, and 79 are on respirators. 

Over the last week, 59 percent of the 175 hospital admissions were unvaccinated. Around 90 percent of Norway’s adult population is fully vaccinated. The median age of fully vaccinated patients in hospital with Covid is 80, while the median age for the unvaccinated was around 50. 

What are the main restrictions currently in place?

Norway is currently in the middle of a nationwide alcohol ban that applies to bars, restaurants, cafes and the like. The measures were introduced on December 15th and will be in place until mid-January at the earliest.

People are also required to social distance and wear facemasks in shops, shopping centres, public transports, bars, restaurants, and leisure settings.

 Additionally, hospitality venues are required to register guests contact details, 

Measures are also in place in schools. For example, all primary and lower secondary schools are at Yellow level, which means social distancing, assigned seating plans for each student, no physical contact between individuals and minimising mixing between different classes to limit the spread of Covid-19.

All upper secondary schools and adult education services are at red level, which sees measures such as much smaller class sizes or cohorts and partial online schooling being implemented. 

There are no curbs stopping certain travellers from coming into Norway. However, all non-vaccinated arrivals must test before travel, once again at the border, register their entry and, in most cases, quarantine.

Fully vaccinated arrivals are required to register their entry and test at the border after arriving.


What is the state of the pandemic in Italy at the end of 2021? 

Spain is ending 2021 with its highest infection rate since the pandemic began - 1,510 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday December 30th - and record daily infections above the 100,000-mark. 

Covid deaths as well pressure on hospitals and ICU wards have increased but at a considerably lower rate than during previous coronavirus waves (this is Spain’s sixth wave). 

What are the main restrictions currently in place? 

On December 23rd, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez met with the presidents of Spain’s 17 regions during an emergency meeting aimed at finding a common plan of attack against the Omicron variant over the Christmas period. 

However, apart from the return of the face mask requirement for outdoor spaces across Spain, they were unable to find common ground over which restrictions should apply on a national level. 

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, Covid measures are once again in the hands of the regional governments, all of which have rolled out their specific capacity limits and closing times for the hospitality sector, curfews and Covid health pass requirements. 

For New Year’s Eve, some regions have tightened restrictions further still, and most of Spain’s big cities with the exception of Madrid have cancelled the traditional celebrations in their town hall squares - the campanadas - which usually see thousands of revellers gather to eat 12 grapes as the bells chime in the new year. 


What is the state of the pandemic in Italy at the end of 2021? 

Italy has seen a sharp increase in coronavirus infections in the week over Christmas. The infection rate has shot up by 81 percent in seven days, with the daily case number currently at around 100,000 and hitting new record highs almost every day.

Part of this increase may be explained by the higher number of tests being done over the holidays, with around a million swabs carried out most days this week. But the percentage of tests coming back positive also keeps rising, and is now at 9.5 percent.

Hospitalisation, intensive care occupancy and death rates are also rising in Italy, but there’s a less dramatic increase. Most of the country is now classified as moderate risk in terms of the pressure on healthcare.

What are the main restrictions currently in place? 

Italy’s government has announced two sets of new Covid restrictions in the space of a week as it rushes to contain the sudden uptick in infections.

The new measures include a ban on public events and gatherings outdoors over the festive period, including on New Year’s Eve. Nightclubs are closed until the end of January.

The Italian government has also brought back the requirement to wear masks in outdoor public places, and made proof of vaccination against or recovery from Covid a requirement to enter more cultural and leisure venues, including restaurants and hotels, and on all public transport from January 10th. 

Despite the recent worsening of the health situation, Italy is not restricting travel between regions or considering any business closures at the moment.



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