Governments around the world have reacted swiftly to the emergence of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, particularly in Europe where administrations have been battling a fourth wave of the pandemic.
Many European countries were in the process of tightening pandemic restrictions even before omicron was first detected by scientists in South Africa, part of an effort to reduce a dramatic surge in delta cases. But the new variant has added to the alarm and triggered the introduction of new measures across the continent.
Greece and Austria made vaccination mandatory before the emergence of omicron, with fines for anyone who fails to comply. Austria is looking at fines of up to $9,500 if people repeatedly refuse to be inoculated.
Germany is also mandating new measures. Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Thursday that coronavirus vaccinations will be compulsory for Germans starting early next year. If parliament approves the measure, Germany would become the third European country to mandate shots. Other countries are likely to follow.
Before the lower house of parliament, or Bundestag, takes up the measure, Merkel said that people who aren't vaccinated will be excluded from nonessential shops, as well as cultural and entertainment venues.
Speaking after a meeting with federal and state leaders, she said stricter measures were necessary in light of worries that hospitals could become overloaded with people suffering from COVID-19 infections.
“The situation in our country is serious,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin. About 69% of the population in Germany is fully vaccinated, below the minimum of 75% the government has set as its goal.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged the bloc’s 27 member states Wednesday not only to step up their vaccination campaigns but to consider making COVID-19 shots mandatory.
She said compulsion should be considered as some 150 million Europeans have still not been jabbed.
“I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now,” she said at a press conference in Brussels.
“Two or three years ago, I would never have thought to witness what we see right now, this horrible pandemic,” she said. “We have the vaccines, the life-saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere. And this is an enormous health cost,” she added.
As clusters of omicron cases start to appear across Europe, national governments say they can’t wait to take action. Poland is now requiring a 14-day quarantine for anyone coming from outside the EU’s visa-free Schengen zone. Spain, Switzerland and Britain have all tightened travel rules. In Portugal, which has one of the world’s best vaccination records, masks are now once again mandatory in indoor settings. The government has announced a “state of calamity,” giving officials the authority to impose stricter measures without parliamentary approval.
The Italian government is mulling ordering that masks be worn not only indoors in shops and entertainment venues and on public transport, but once again outside in public spaces.
As governments impose new rules and announce the return of other regulations, criticism mounts. Some lawmakers and businesses are accusing officials of rushing too far ahead of the science and acting before virologists and epidemiologists have established whether the new strain can evade current vaccines or is any more virulent than the continent’s current dominant delta strain.
Governments say they have no choice but to act quickly, fearing that complacency could lead to massive surges in infections, overwhelming hospitals and leading to more deaths. Officials say temporary measures need to be taken to hedge bets against an even more serious outbreak and that the risk of overreacting is less costly in lives than potentially allowing hospitals to fill up with the sick.
Von der Leyen said Europe and the rest of the world were in a “race against time ... until we have certainty about the characteristics of transmissibility and severity of omicron.”
She added, “The arrival of the presumably highly contagious omicron variant calls for our utmost attention.”
Travel restrictions, ‘last resort’
Tougher rules risk plunging many businesses into chaos — among the most critical are airline executives, who say border and flight restrictions and tougher testing requirements will have a significant impact on tourism and an aviation sector that has struggled to recover.
International Air Transport Association chief Willie Walsh accused governments of over-reacting.
“As quickly as possible, we must use the experience of the last two years to move to a coordinated data-driven approach that finds safe alternatives to border closures and quarantine,” he said.
The lobby group Airlines for Europe said border closures should be a “measure of last resort,” and onerous travel rules could have unintended consequences, forcing travelers to find alternative routes to enter the bloc via land routes and non-EU airports, where testing standards may be poorer.
Eric Drésin, secretary general of the European Travel Agents' and Tour Operators' Associations, said scientists should be given “the time to assess and explain the risks of omicron.” He urged EU governments to avoid the chaos of the first year of the pandemic and to coordinate national restrictions that left businesses and passengers bewildered.
The World Health Organization also urged restraint. Richard Brennan, regional emergency director at WHO, told a news conference this week that while the organization encourages social distancing measures, it is worried some decisions are being made without proper risk assessment. He said new travel rules should be based “on evidence and strong analysis.”
While acknowledging that omicron is a cause for concern, other critics worry that the speed and scale of the reactions to the omicron mutation risk sapping public faith in vaccines, and could swell the ranks of those declining to get inoculated and prompt a greater backlash against pandemic restrictions.
Even before the emergence of the omicron virus, several countries, including the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland and Austria, saw mass protests against pandemic restrictions, some encouraged by populist parties. Protests turned violent in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, where police fired warning shots and used water cannon to control demonstrators who pelted officers with rocks and set cars on fire.
Some ethicists and political philosophers have raised concerns about vaccine mandates and the different rules applied to those who have been inoculated compared to those who decline vaccinations. They say the rule effectively strips some citizens of their constitutional rights when they have not broken any laws.
In Italy, Massimo Cacciari, one of the country’s most respected philosophers, criticized the vaccine passport rule as dangerously discriminatory, saying it “automatically transforms an entire category of people into second-class citizens.”
“We are in a situation of a very dangerous drift into a perennial state of emergency,” Cacciari said during a recent television debate hosted by the Adnkronos news agency. “If you have no sensitivity to constitutional issues, fine. How can you not understand that the COVID emergency is accelerating this drift, with a centralization of the decision-making process?”