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Joe Biden assures in wake of Omicron spread


Biden’s warning and reassurance came as Germany announced new restrictions on Wednesday that will begin after Christmas to slow the spread of the new omicron variant, rules that will fall short of a full lockdown but will include contact restrictions even for vaccinated people.

“I can understand anyone who doesn’t want to hear about the coronavirus, mutations and new virus variants,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at a press conference Tuesday evening. “But we cannot and must not turn a blind eye to this next wave.”

An ambulance speeds over a bridge in Frankfurt, Germany.

An ambulance speeds over a bridge in Frankfurt, Germany.Credit:AP

Among the new rules are limiting private gatherings to 10 people, closing nightclubs nationwide and having large events like soccer matches held without an in-person audience. The restrictions will go into effect nationwide on December 28, although states can implement the measures sooner.

Scholz said the government decided to wait until after Christmas to implement new national restrictions because family-focused holidays such as Christmas and Easter “have not proven to be major drivers of the pandemic.”

But he said restrictions on New Year’s celebrations are necessary to keep Germany’s health system from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases.

“This is no longer the time for parties and social evenings in big groups,” Scholz said.

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

A woman is vaccinated at a mass vaccination centre on Tuesday in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

A woman is vaccinated at a mass vaccination centre on Tuesday in Belfast, Northern Ireland.Credit:Getty Images

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

Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland – part of the United Kingdom but with devolved responsibilities for health – set out plans for further restrictions on big public events, including sports fixtures, for three weeks after Christmas.

“It will also mean unfortunately that large-scale Hogmanay celebrations, including that planned here in our capital city (Edinburgh), will not proceed,” she said, referring to traditional Scottish New Year parties.

All was quiet in the retail precinct of Amsterdam, which has been locked down to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

All was quiet in the retail precinct of Amsterdam, which has been locked down to prevent the spread of COVID-19.Credit:Bloomberg

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

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

Finance minister Rishi Sunak announced £1 billion ($1.86 billion) of extra support for businesses hit hardest by Omicron, which is hammering the hospitality sector and other businesses.

‘I understand that many are tired’

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

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“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.

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 said early data shows a booster dose helps restore some protection against Omicron, although there is no evidence yet that tweaks to existing shots will be necessary.

The variant was first detected last month in southern Africa and Hong Kong and so far has been reported in at least 89 countries.

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The severity of illness it causes remains unclear, but the World Health Organisation warned it is spreading faster than the Delta variant and is causing infections in people already vaccinated or who have recovered from the COVID-19 disease.

More than 274 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus globally since the pandemic began nearly two years ago. More than 5.65 million people have died.

Reuters, AP

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