“The Netherlands is shutting down again,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Saturday in a televised address. The new measures, beginning Sunday, Rutte said, are because of a “fifth wave” of COVID-19, due to the highly contagious omicron variant.
Under the new rules, all non-essential shops will be closed to at least mid-January. Only two guests will be permitted to visit a household at one time. Four guests, however, will be allowed during the upcoming holidays from Dec. 24-26 and New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
Schools will be immediately closed until at least Jan. 9.
While the Netherland boasts an 85% inoculation rate of its population, only 9% have received booster shots.
Jaap van Dissel, the chief of the Dutch outbreak management team, said the shutdown will give people time to get their booster jabs and gives hospitals time to prepare for the possible surge in COVID cases.
Other European countries are also moving to reimpose restrictions to contain the variant’s spread.
The new variant has fueled infections in Britain close to the peak levels of early 2021, while other European countries and the United States are also experiencing surges.
Scientists are warning the British government needs to go further to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed amid the surge. The warning comes after the government reimposed an indoor mask requirement and ordered people to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test when entering night clubs or large venues.
Britain's Health Security Agency said Friday that 65 patients were hospitalized in England with omicron.
In France, the government said it would start inoculating children ages 5-11 beginning Wednesday. As he declared Friday the omicron variant was spreading like “lightning,” Prime Minister Jean Castex proposed requiring proof of vaccination for those entering public establishments.
The measure, which requires parliamentary approval, has triggered plans for protests Saturday in Paris, where the New Year's Eve fireworks display has been canceled.
Anti-lockdown protests also are planned for Saturday in Turin, Italy.
Egypt has detected its first three cases of the new variant, according to the country’s health ministry. The ministry said Friday the three infected people were among 26 travelers who tested positive for coronavirus at Cairo International Airport.
The ministry did not say where the three came from, but the Masrawy news outlet reported they were among travelers from South Africa, which announced the discovery of the variant on Nov. 25.
In China, Beijing will maintain its relatively strict containment measures, while the rest of the country will remain flexible. “There is no one-fit-for-all policy” for local governments, a Chinese government said Saturday at a news conference.
China has identified two cases of the omicron variant and has mostly contained the spread of COVID-19 since it was first discovered in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
A recent study has found the risk of reinfection with omicron is more than five times higher compared to the delta variant, and it has shown no sign of causing milder symptoms.
"We find no evidence of omicron having different severity from delta," said the study by Imperial College London. The study noted, however, that data on hospitalizations is still limited.
The study, conducted in England between Nov. 29 and Dec. 11, was based on 333,000 cases of infections involving different variants of the coronavirus.
More than 5.3 million people have died of COVID-19 globally since the coronavirus emerged two years ago, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
The center reported more than 8.6 billion doses of vaccines had been administered worldwide as of midday Saturday, a massive logistical campaign complicated by omicron’s surge.
Several countries are racing to accelerate vaccination campaigns as mounting evidence supports the need for booster doses to combat the omicron variant.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday that his country would send 15 million doses of vaccines to Africa, where infections are surging and vaccination rates are low. Erdogan made the announcement at a summit of African leaders in Istanbul.
“It is disgraceful for humanity that only 6% of Africa’s population has been vaccinated,” Erdogan said.
A vaccine developed in India, Covovax, was granted emergency approval Friday by the World Health Organization. WHO vaccines chief Mariangela Simao said the approval “aims to increase access particularly to lower-income countries.”
In Europe, European Union governments agreed to order more than 180 million doses of a BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine adapted for omicron, the head of the European Commission said Friday.
Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Friday the government plans to accelerate booster shots to around 31 million vulnerable people. He also said he spoke Friday with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla about oral treatments.
South Africa, which first identified the omicron variant, said Friday it would donate about 2 million doses of Johnson & Johnson's vaccine to other African countries next year via a medical supplies platform established by the African Union.
Some information in this report came from Agence France-Presse, The Associated Press and Reuters.