People ice skate around the Christmas tree at the Natural History Museum, in London, on December 21, 2021. Image Credit: REUTERS

London: Countries across Europe were considering new curbs on movement on Tuesday, with German scientists urging maximum and immediate restrictions on social contacts as the Omicron variant swept the world days before the second Christmas of the pandemic.

Omicron infections are multiplying across Europe, the United States and Asia, including in Japan, where a single cluster of COVID-19 cases at a military base has grown to at least 180.

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In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to make an announcement in the next 48 hours on whether to impose “circuit-breaker” restrictions in England to stem the spread of the Omicron variant, The Sun newspaper reported on Tuesday.

It said Johnson is considering a return to “Step 2” curbs that would limit pubs and restaurants to outdoor service only and ban indoor mixing between households.

In the US, President Joe Biden was to outline plans on Tuesday afternoon to expand testing sites across the country, distribute a half-billion free at-home tests and deploy more federal health resources to aid strained hospitals, as the Omicron variant drives a fresh wave of infections.

The speech will not focus on “locking the country down,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday, but the president will be “direct and clear with the American people about the benefits of being vaccinated, the steps we’re going to take to . . . increase testing, and the risks posed to unvaccinated individuals.”

“We know how to protect people from severe illness,” the White House said in a statement previewing the speech. “We have the tools needed to do it.”

People stand in a line at a COVID-19 testing site being run by Blue Med Consultants on December 20, 2021 in Miami, Florida. Image Credit: AFP

The Biden administration will start delivering a half-billion free rapid tests to American homes next month, according to the statement. Health officials will set up a website where Americans can order the tests. New federal testing sites will also be established across the country, starting with one in New York City this week.

The Biden administration has emphasized increased testing as one of the pillars of its pandemic policies, but it has been criticized for failing to provide at-home tests at low cost. Americans are paying $25 for a pack of two tests, if they can find any at a local pharmacy.

Health officials say they fear that the emergence of the quickly spreading Omicron variant could overwhelm health-care facilities nationwide. The variant accounted for 73% of new COVID-19 cases in the United States between December 12 and 18, according to modeled projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To relieve overrun hospitals, the federal government will immediately send emergency medical teams to Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Vermont, the president is expected to say. Some of those states, such as Michigan, had been suffering from case surges even before the announcement of the first omicron case in the United States this month.

The administration will deploy an additional 1,000 military doctors, nurses, paramedics and other health-care personnel to strained medical centers in January and February as needed. The president will order the Federal Emergency Management Agency to work with states and territories to prepare more hospital beds ahead of expected surges.

Federal officials have earmarked N95 masks, gloves, gowns and ventilators from the national stockpile ready for shipment to states that may require rapid assistance in medical supplies. “The Administration has pre-positioned these supplies . . . so that we can send them to states that need them immediately,” the White House said.

Biden’s speech comes three weeks after he unveiled his initial plan to combat a winter surge, which included campaigns to increase vaccinations and booster shots, more stringent testing for international travelers, and plans to make rapid at-home coronavirus testing free for more people.

People present their vaccination status as they queue in front of the famous department store ‘KaDeWe’ (Department Store Of The West’) in Berlin, Germany, on December 21, 2021. Image Credit: AP

Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and South Korea are among countries to have reimposed partial or full lockdowns or other social distancing measures, in recent days.

New Zealand COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said his country, which imposed some of the world’s toughest COVID-19 measures, was delaying the start of a staggered reopening of its border until the end of February.

“All of the evidence so far points to Omicron being the most transmissible COVID-19 variant yet,” he said.

Germany’s Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases on Tuesday recommended that “maximum contact restrictions” be imposed at once.

Federal and state leaders were due to meet later in the day to decide on new measures, which were likely to include contact restrictions even for the vaccinated and those who have recovered from an infection, but a nationwide lockdown seemed to be off the cards.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday he was looking at all kinds of measures to keep Omicron under control.

UK unveiles $1.3 billion support for businesses

Finance minister Rishi Sunak announced 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) of extra support for businesses hit hardest by Omicron, which is hammering the hospitality sector and other businesses.

He said he was confident the measures would help hundreds of thousands of businesses. But he added that he would “respond proportionately and appropriately” if the government were to impose further restrictions to slow Omicron, which would further hit the economy.

Sweden tightening curbs

Sweden will urge all employees to work from home if possible and impose tighter rules for social distancing.

“We must now take joint responsibility and we need adapt to the new reality,” Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told a news conference. “I understand that many are tired of this - so am I - but we now have a new virus variant, which means we are in a new situation.” In neighbouring Denmark, Omicron is now the predominant variant, Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said.

The latest restrictions - the second stage of the government’s plans - includes a limit of 50 people at private gatherings and the need for a vaccination pass for public events where there are more than 500 people.

Bars and restaurants will only be able to serve seated guests while the public will also have to be seated at larger events - like football matches. Shops will have to limit the number of customers to prevent crowding.

Earlier this month, the government reintroduced some limited measures, such as the use of masks on public transport. It has warned that further measures may be needed if the situation deteriorates.

Greece to give citizens two free self-tests for the holidays

The Greek government will distribute free self-tests to all citizens during the holiday season as it battles the spread of Covid-19.

Lines of cars are seen as members of the public wait for their COVID-19 tests at St Vincent’s Hospital drive-through testing clinic at Bondi Beach in Sydney Image Credit: Reuters

“At this time, our weapons are tests,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, in comments before a Tuesday cabinet meeting. “Everyone, vaccinated or not, must self-test.”

The free-test programme is designed to allow Greeks to get through the season safely, Mitsotakis said, without bringing the economy and society to a halt but also without risking that the country later pays the price for its holiday festivities.

While Greece has only 26 confirmed cases of the omicron variant in a country of 11 million people, health experts say it’s only a matter of time before case loads jump as they have elsewhere in Europe.

Hopes on booster shots

Many countries in the West are pinning their hopes on third, booster vaccine shots to keep the new variant at bay amid reports that two shots may not be enough.

The European Union’s drug regulator is prepared for the possibility that vaccines may have to be tweaked to fight Omicron, although there is no evidence yet, the agency’s chief said.

“There is no answer whether we will need to adapt vaccines,” European Medicines Agency executive director Emer Cook said.

‘We’re not going back to lockdowns’

Omicron has hit financial markets hard in recent days, raising investor fears for the global economic recovery as the pandemic cuts travel and seizes up supply chains.

But world shares gained on Tuesday, with the dollar softening as appetite for riskier assets made a cautious return.

The broader Euro STOXX 600 rose 1.2%. Germany’s DAX’s added 1.13%, with London’s FTSE climbing 1.02%.

Wall Street’s main indexes were set to rise, following a steep selloff in the previous session.

In Australia, where Omicron cases have surged but hospitalisations remain relatively low, Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged state and territory leaders to avoid further lockdowns.

“We’re not going back to lockdowns. We’re going forward to live with this virus with common sense and responsibility,” he said.