Doctor Ruxandra Divan, rests in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for COVID-19 patients at "Hopitaux Civils de Colmar" in Colmar, France, December 15, 2021. Image Credit: REUTERS

Paris: France said on Thursday it would ban non-essential travel to and from Britain in a bid to curb the lightning spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, which is forecast to quickly become the dominant risk for strained hospital systems worldwide.

Countries around the world began urging against foreign travel while ramping up domestic restrictions to battle Omicron, which scientists believe spreads faster than any other variant even if uncertainty remains over how dangerous it is.

Britain has seen case levels explode in recent weeks to record levels amid fears the variant could overwhelm the health system during Christmas dinners and parties.

Starting at midnight Saturday (2300 GMT Friday), the French government said, travellers will need “an essential reason to travel to, or come from, the UK, both for the unvaccinated and vaccinated... People cannot travel for touristic or professional reasons.”

It added that French citizens and EU nationals could still return to France from the UK, but they will now need a negative COVID test less than 24 hours old, and a blanket quarantine will be enforced upon return to France.

‘Tightening the net’

Government spokesman Gabriel Attal told BFM television the new restrictions would be “even more drastic” than the existing regime.

“People (coming back) will have to register on an app and will have to self-isolate in a place of their choosing for seven days - controlled by the security forces - but this can be shortened to 48 hours if a negative test is carried out in France,” Attal said.

The policy aims at “tightening the net” to slow the arrival of Omicron cases as France and its EU neighbours race to get booster shots into people’s arms ahead of the holiday season, he said.

Britain on Wednesday recorded a record 78,610 laboratory-confirmed Covid cases, with scientists predicting even higher rates as Omicron is believed to spread much faster than the currently dominant Delta variant.

“It’s down to individual countries to decide their approach,” a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in response to the French restrictions.

“We’ve maintained that travel abroad will be different this year and that countries may impose border measures at short notice,” he added.

But at the Eurostar terminal at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris, not everyone was convinced on the need for the travel ban.

“I’m sure it’s political... it’s a way to make things a lot more complicated,” said Susan Etchecopar, a British pensioner.

“But it’s not normal for people like me and the others here, who are leaving for Great Britain to see our families - I’m going to be with my family,” she told AFP.

‘Fear the worst’

The French move comes after Canada urged its citizens to avoid foreign travel over the Christmas holidays, saying the Omicron variant “makes us fear the worst.”

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Covid-19 testing of travellers at Canadian airports would be increased and other public health measures would be rolled out in the coming days.

South Korea said Thursday that it would reimpose coronavirus curfews on restaurants, cinemas and other businesses and limit the size of gatherings again in the face of record infection levels.

New York’s Metropolitan Opera, meanwhile, announced that it will require Covid booster shots from all its musicians and other employees - some 3,000 people - as well as anyone attending a performance.

The Omicron risk also elbowed its way into an EU summit meeting in Brussels on Thursday, with predictions the variant could become dominant in the bloc as soon as next month.

But leaders are struggling to forge a united approach to stop the spread, after several countries imposed emergency measures in recent days.

Omicron is “of significant concern obviously, in terms of the capacity of that variant to spread rapidly and create pressure on our societies and our health systems,” Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told journalists in Brussels.

“So today we’ll be looking for greater coordination on a number of fronts,” he said.