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As omicron surges, nations announce rules on gatherings and travel ahead of holidays

A man walks by a closed cheese store on a normally bustling shopping street in the center of Amsterdam on Monday. Nations across Europe have moved to reimpose tougher measures to stem a new wave of COVID-19 infections spurred by the highly transmissible omicron variant. Netherlands has imposed a nationwide lockdown.
Peter Dejong
/
AP
A man walks by a closed cheese store on a normally bustling shopping street in the center of Amsterdam on Monday. Nations across Europe have moved to reimpose tougher measures to stem a new wave of COVID-19 infections spurred by the highly transmissible omicron variant. Netherlands has imposed a nationwide lockdown.

While health experts promise that we're not living in March 2020 all over again — we have vaccines and other tools now — abrupt new restrictions in some countries are reminiscent of that era.

The Netherlands went into lockdown on Sunday, lasting through Jan. 14, 2022. The new rules urge "everyone [to] stay at home as much as possible," set limits on the number of visitors a household can receive and limit groups outdoors to two people.

The country's outbreak management team concluded that omicron would be the dominant variant in the Netherlands by the end of December — sooner than predicted. With an anticipated rise in hospitalizations, the health care system is expected to become overburdened in January, necessitating the lockdown, the government explained.

"The spread of the Omicron variant must be slowed as soon as possible in order to ensure healthcare services remain available to all," the Dutch government said.

City streets in the Netherlands were largely deserted as the lockdown came into effect, Reuters reports, though police in Rotterdam used a water cannon to disperse a thousand soccer fans who had gathered for a match between Feyenoord and Ajax. (Bottles and fireworks had also been thrown at police and the Ajax team bus, according to local news reports.) No spectators have been permitted at Dutch soccer matches since November.

Sweden announced new travel rules starting Dec. 21 for its Nordic neighbors, requiring a vaccine certificate for travelers arriving from Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland, according to The Local in Sweden. Travelers from those countries had previously been exempt from those entry rules, which were already in force for travelers from all other counties.

In Israel, Cabinet ministers added the United States and Canada to its list of "red countries," as well as adding Italy, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey. A red status — which now applies to 58 countriesmeans that Israeli citizens and permanent residents are banned from travel to those countries unless they get a special exemption and that all travelers from those countries, regardless of vaccination status, must complete a period of isolation.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced on Saturday a "major incident," a status that means special coordination of government services and that hospital and emergency services may be strained. The virus is surging in Britain's capital city, with 21,594 new cases reported there on Sunday.

"We face a tsunami of infections in the coming days and weeks," U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid wrote over the weekend in The Telegraph. "Omicron spreads at a pace we have never seen before and has been doubling about every two to three days. Yesterday saw more than 90,000 new cases reported across the UK. We are extremely confident the number of infections – people with the disease but who have not been confirmed by a test – is significantly higher than that."

The outbreak is spurring record levels of vaccinations in the United Kingdom.

France imposed tighter restrictions for travel between the U.K. and France, requiring "compelling reasons" for such travel — and tourism and business don't qualify. Vaccinated people must also present a negative test result from within the previous 24 hours, aligning with the existing rule for unvaccinated travelers.

Japan closed its borders to all nonresident foreigners at the end of November.

In Germany, the government is considering new restrictions on social gatherings to begin Dec. 28, The Local in Germany reports. The rules could include limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people, not including children, as well as the closure of indoor clubs and discos.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, urged people to consider canceling holiday plans amid the omicron surge.

"An event canceled is better than a life canceled. It's better to cancel now and celebrate later, than to celebrate now and grieve later," he said Monday.

New rules in Switzerland dictate that only those who have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 may go inside "restaurants, cultural, sporting and leisure venues and attend indoor events," according to Switzerland's national broadcaster.

The omicron surge is also behind a major postponement in the country: the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. The 2022 event had been slated to take place Jan. 17 to 21.

"Current pandemic conditions make it extremely difficult to deliver a global in-person meeting," the organization said in a statement. "Despite the meeting's stringent health protocols, the transmissibility of Omicron and its impact on travel and mobility have made deferral necessary."

The organization says it will reschedule the event for the summer of 2022. The 2021 event was also canceled.

NPR reporter Jaclyn Diaz contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.