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Europe scrambles for Covid control with boosters, jabs for kids

Published on November 25, 2021

Europe scrambled to regain control over a resurgent coronavirus as governments urged boosters and jabs for young children in a sign of growing unease at their inability to roll back the pandemic that has now killed 1.5 million people on the continent.

Berlin, Paris and Prague were among capitals weighing tighter Covid restrictions and widening vaccinations campaigns as surging cases and the encroaching winter threaten to undo hard-won gains against the virus over the summer.

With governments already struggling to cope with the more infectious Delta variant, the discovery of a new and troubling strain in South Africa was a stark reminder that the fight against Covid-19 is far from won.

In Germany, outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel urged more stringent controls, France stepped up booster shots, and the European Union’s medicines agency gave the green light to a vaccine for five-year-olds.

Even countries with relatively high rates of vaccination are now nervously eyeing the encroaching winter and mulling a roll-back or even tightening of Covid measures that have only recently been relaxed.

Merkel implored the new government succeeding her to take quick, decisive measures as the country reported a record 351 Covid fatalities in the past 24 hours, taking the official death toll since the start of the pandemic past 100,000.

Warning that “every day counts”, Merkel urged her successor government for “more contact restrictions”.

“We must really be careful to ensure that our hospitals are not overwhelmed,” she said.

– Booster bolster –

Germany has had to call on hospitals elsewhere in the EU for help as some clinics face overload.

The country last week began requiring people to prove they are vaccinated, have recovered from Covid-19 or recently tested negative before they can travel on public transport or enter workplaces.

Several of the worst-hit areas have gone further, cancelling Christmas markets and barring the unvaccinated from bars, gyms and leisure facilities.

Germany’s Covid-19 crisis has in part been blamed on its relatively low vaccination rate of about 69 percent, compared to other Western European countries such as France, where it is 75 percent — even though new cases hit a seven-month high on Wednesday.

A German campaign for booster shots has been marred by supply and logistics snags.

In Paris, Health Minister Olivier Veran said Covid-19 booster shots, until now only available to people over 65 or with health problems, would be accessible to all adults starting this weekend.

From January 15, people over 18 would need to show proof of a top-up vaccine dose to maintain a valid Covid pass, which is required to enter restaurants, bars, gyms and other public venues.

Adding pressure, the EU Commission recommended that the bloc’s vaccination certificate should become invalid once the holder’s latest dose is more than nine months old.

The streets of the Slovak capital Bratislava were deserted as a new partial Covid lockdown came into effect.

Belgium, which reimposed tougher curbs only last week, has seen an uptick in cases and hospitalisations that exceeded “the most pessimistic curves” drawn by experts, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said.

– State of emergency –

The Czech government declared a 30-day state of emergency on Thursday, closing Christmas markets as well as nightclubs in a bid to stem record infections.

Hospitals in the east of the country are reaching capacity and some have begun moving patients across the country by helicopters and ambulance.

The spiking cases see Europe re-emerge as the pandemic’s epicentre, with the continent battling sluggish vaccine uptake in some nations, the highly contagious Delta variant, colder weather sending people indoors and the easing of restrictions.

An AFP tally of official figures showed Thursday that more than 1.5 million people have died from Covid-19 in Europe.

In an indication of the risks still posed by the coronavirus, scientists in South Africa said they had detected a new variant with multiple mutations, blaming it for a surge in infection numbers.

The number of daily infections in Africa’s hardest-hit country has increased tenfold since the start of the month.

“Unfortunately, we have detected a new variant which is a reason for concern in South Africa,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira told a hastily called news conference.

Back in Europe, the European Medicines Agency approved the Pfizer/BioNTech jab for five to 11 year olds, clearing the way for the vaccination in an age group where the virus is rapidly spreading, and bringing the EU into line with the US, Israel and Canada.

A World Health Organization study on Thursday found that Covid vaccines had saved at least half a million lives in Europe.