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France, UK confront omicron spread without lockdown orders

Betting on the new variant causing a milder Covid-19 infection, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is letting England party on into the New Year and hopes to tame a mutiny inside his party.

(CN) — Despite massive waves of new coronavirus cases in both France and England, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron are opting to not impose strict curbs and lockdowns.

Both leaders are politically vulnerable and eager to please businesses and win public support by not shutting down society. In doing so, they seem to be gambling on the possibility that the extremely fast-spreading omicron strain may be milder, according to early studies.

On Monday, both governments laid out their strategies in the onslaught of record numbers of infections. While Macron set in motion a series of new tailored restrictions, Johnson chose to not impose any new curbs.

Macron is up for reelection in April and he faces a challenge from far-right politicians Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour who are opposed to tough Covid restrictions as well as the health passes needed to access businesses and public places. Johnson, meanwhile, has found himself dropping in polls and facing a mutiny inside his Conservative Party over the recent introduction of a health pass to enter large venues, such as soccer matches and nightclubs.

On Christmas Day, France recorded for the first time in the pandemic more than 100,000 new coronavirus cases.

England, meanwhile, registered a new high with more than 113,600 cases on Christmas Day and 98,515 cases on Boxing Day. The U.K. as a whole has seen the number of daily cases rise from about 43,000 on average at the start of December to more than 108,000. Testing and data have been delayed by the Christmas weekend.

Despite the huge number of newly detected infections, this coronavirus-stricken winter has so far proven to be less severe in Europe than last year thanks to mass vaccination campaigns and a possibility that the omicron strain may be milder than other variants. Studies from South Africa, where the strain was first identified in November, Hong Kong and the U.K. have found omicron causes less severe symptoms though it spreads even faster than the delta strain, which became the dominant strain this year after it emerged in India in late 2020.

The number of people needing hospitalization and who are dying from Covid-19 is far lower in most countries than a year ago when most of Europe was in a lockdown and recording staggering death tolls.

On Monday, disregarding the warnings of some scientists, Johnson chose to not add new restrictions in England and allowed mass events, such as nightclubs and soccer matches, to carry on uninterrupted.

“We will continue to monitor the data carefully, but there will be no new restrictions introduced in England before the New Year,” Johnson said after an emergency meeting with cabinet members and scientific advisers.

“However, I would urge everyone to continue to act cautiously given the rising number of omicron cases,” he added in a tweet. “Most importantly I urge everyone to get their first, second or booster jab without delay to protect yourselves and your loved ones.”

Johnson's reluctance to take a tough stance comes as he faces mounting anger within his Tory party over legislation passed two weeks ago that makes it a vaccine pass mandatory to enter large venues, such as sports stadiums and concerts, in England.

A woman walks between closed bars and restaurants in Frankfurt, Germany, on Monday, Dec. 27, 2021, a day before new restrictions to avoid the outspread of the coronavirus will go into effect all over Germany. (Photo/Michael Probst)

By contrast, the regional governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have imposed much stricter curbs, such as limiting indoor gatherings, closing nightclubs and canceling mass events.

It's a risky wager for Johnson, but politically he may hope to win back his party's support.

“Mr. Johnson will hope he gets some credit as revelers in England party on New Year’s Eve, amid a series of dire polls that suggest he is currently en route to election defeat,” wrote Arj Singh, the deputy political editor for inews, a national newspaper. “Mr. Johnson will be hoping that his roll of the dice can at least start to win back favor in a mutinous Tory Party.”

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His decision is based on medical studies suggesting omicron may not pose as much of a threat, though scientists have cautioned that hospitals could be overwhelmed by the sheer number of infections caused by the superfast-spreading variant.

Studies indicate that between 30% and 70% fewer people infected with omicron are needing hospital treatment compared with other variants. In Britain, the government said the unvaccinated are making up the majority of Covid-19 hospital patients.

A University of Edinburgh study found that omicron “is associated with a two-thirds reduction in the risk of Covid-19 hospitalization when compared to delta.” The study said booster vaccine shots “offers substantial additional protection” against omicron. An analysis by Imperial College London came to similar conclusions.

“An individual infection could be relatively mild for the vast majority of people, but the potential for all these infections to come at once and put serious strain on the NHS [National Health Service] remains,” said Mark Woolhouse with the University of Edinburgh, according to The Independent. He took part in the University of Edinburgh study.

Scientists believe the numerous mutations exhibited by the omicron variant may have made it more transmissible but less harmful.

A paper by the University of Hong Kong found omicron multiplies 70 times faster than the delta variant and the original Covid-19 strain in a person's airway, which may explain why it transmits faster between humans than previous variants. The same study found that infection in the lung is “significantly lower” than the original strain and that “may be an indicator of lower disease severity.”

Still, some scientists fear Johnson is making a bad bet about omicron and ignoring scientists' warnings.

“It does feel hard that, at a time when we need to all pull together to maximize all possible mitigations, we seem to have our greatest divergence between expert clinical/scientific advice and legislation,” Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London, told the Guardian.

“History has shown us the quicker we act the better the outcome when it comes to putting restrictions in place,” said Dr. Amir Khan, a senior university lecturer in Britain, in an opinion for Al Jazeera. “Relying on the 'milder' narrative may well come back to haunt some of our world leaders who most likely have their eyes closed and their fingers crossed, hoping that the surge in cases will not translate into hospital admissions.”

In France, meanwhile, Macron's government hasn't yet argued that its wave of new infections may be more mild but it is nonetheless holding off on imposing tough new restrictions, such as lockdowns deployed by Austria and the Netherlands to halt the spread of the virus.

Macron met with top ministers on Monday afternoon to set out a strategy and the president left it to Prime Minister Jean Castex to announce the new measures.

For the next three weeks, Castex said, indoor public gatherings will be limited to 2,000 people and outdoor events to 5,000 people. Concerts where people stand will be banned and food and drinks will not be allowed in cinemas, theaters and long-distance transport. He called on workers to work from home one day a week.

But the government rejected imposing a curfew for New Year's and ruled out a lockdown. Schools will reopen as scheduled on Jan. 3. On the same day, drinking at the counters of bars and cafes will be banned.

People wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the Covid-19, sit on a carousel in Paris, Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Rafael Yaghobzadeh)

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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