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Shoppers walk along Oxford Street in central London on December 10, 2021. The UK government will from Monday tighten virus restrictions in England as Omicron variant cases surge, including guidance to work from home and mandatory COVID passports. Image Credit: AFP

London: England could face between 24,700 and 74,800 deaths from COVID-19 this winter without further restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, scientists in London warned.

UK care homes are already cutting back on visits and health officials are pushing for even tighter limits on socializing, the Guardian reported.

The surge in Omicron cases means winter deaths from the virus could be higher than last year in England, according to research by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

The study, which was published before peer review, modelled a number of scenarios for how Omicron will spread and respond to booster shots.

Under the most optimistic scenario, 24,700 people would die between December 1 and April 30 if the current restrictions on socialising in England are kept in place. The worst-case scenario would see nearly 75,000 deaths and a peak in hospital admissions around twice as high as the peak seen in January 2021.

Health officials say Omicron is spreading much more quickly than the Delta strain and is likely to replace it and become the dominant variant in Britain within days. The UK recorded 58,194 coronavirus cases on Friday, the highest number since January, though what portion were the Omicron variant is unclear.

Concerns about the new variant led Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government to reintroduce restrictions that were lifted almost six months ago. Masks must be worn in most indoor settings, vaccine certificates must be shown to enter nightclubs and people are being urged to work from home if possible.

Scotland’s tighter isolation rules take effect

People in Scotland who live with someone who catches Covid must now isolate for 10 days, regardless of whether they test negative or have been vaccinated. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the change on Friday, warning that omicron could bring a surge of new cases.

Meanwhile, Germany’s intensive care units are “severely strained” and will stay under pressure for now even as new COVID cases decline, according to one medical association

More countries across Europe and Asia are expanding their vaccine programmes to younger children, as preliminary UK data showed that vaccine boosters improve protection to as much as 75% against the rapidly spreading new strain.

In the US, most of the cases traced to the new variant so far have been mild illnesses in people who were vaccinated, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.

Nevertheless, hospitals in parts of the country are hurtling toward a holiday crisis.

French PM hails vaccines ahead of Christmas

In France, Prime Minister Jean Castex urged more people to get vaccinated, with a fifth wave of cases sweeping the country. “People can celebrate Christmas normally, but we must respect the rules...and get vaccinated,” Castex, who tested positive for Covid-19 last month, told public radio outlet France Blue late Friday, according to AP. At least 81% of the French population has had at least one shot, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker.

Switzerland and Czech Republic to jab younger children

Switzerland approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for children between the ages of five and 11 years old. Swissmedic, the nation’s agency for therapeutic products, said “clinical trial results show that the vaccine is safe and effective in this age group.” The children’s dose will be one-third the strength of the vaccine given to adolescents and adults, Swissmedic said.

Separately, the Czech Republic said it will start vaccinating children between 5 and 11 years old next week. The country will open registry for kids from Sunday, and expects the first shots for children, from the total 300,000 it ordered, to arrive at the beginning of the week. The country had 12,836 new cases on Friday, 5,300 less than a week ago.

Italy will start vaccinating children aged 5-11 starting December 16, and Portugal will begin on Dec. 18. Both countries will give priority to children who are medically vulnerable. Switzerland didn’t give a date for expanding vaccinations.

Danish Omicron surge warning to Europe

Denmark is seeing the number of people infected with the omicron variant of COVID-19 double every second day, offering a glimpse of a development that is probably unfolding throughout Europe.

The Nordic country can offer valuable insights into what to expect from Omicron, as it has Europe’s most rigorous screening program, with a high level of testing, and variant-screening of all positive PCR tests. That explains why Denmark has reported the highest number of omicron cases in the European Union, Troels Lillebaek, chair of the Danish SARS-CoV-2 variant assessment committee, said.

“Denmark is not a hotspot for omicron compared with any other European country,” Lillebaek said in an interview on Friday. “I’m quite sure that what we are seeing now in Denmark is also happening in neighboring countries, and in other European countries.”

Denmark has now recorded more than 1,000 cases of the omicron variant after a 60% jump in one day.