LONDON: Spiralling infections in Britain driven in part by the new omicron variant of the coronavirus rattled many in Europe on Thursday, fuelling a familiar dread that tighter restrictions will scuttle holiday plans again this year.
Much remains unknown about omicron, but increasingly officials are warning that at the very least it appears more transmissible than the delta variant, which was already putting pressure on hospitals from the US to the Netherlands.
With so many questions outstanding, uncertainty reigned over how quickly and how severely to crack down on Christmas travel and end-of-year parties.
After the UK recorded the highest number of confirmed new COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began, France announced Thursday that it would tighten entry rules for those coming from Britain.
In England, the chief medical officer urged people to limit who they see in the festive period, and pubs and restaurants said many were heeding that advice by cancelling Christmas parties, though there has been much debate about what's OK to do right now.
In the US, meanwhile, the White House insisted there was no need for a lockdown, despite signs that omicron was gaining ground there.
Globally, more than 75 countries have reported confirmed cases of the new variant.
In Britain, where omicron cases are doubling every two to three days, the variant is expected to soon replace delta as the dominant strain in the country, and the government has accelerated its booster program in response.
Authorities in the 27-nation European Union say omicron will be the dominant variant in the bloc by mid-January.
In addition to hints that it's more contagious, early data suggest omicron may be milder but better at evading vaccines,making booster shots more crucial.
Experts have urged caution in particular on drawing conclusions about how mild it is because hospitalisations lag behind infections and so many variables contribute to how sick people get.
Also, even if omicron proves milder on the whole than delta, it may disarm some of the lifesaving tools available and put immune-compromised and elderly people at particular risk.
And if it's more transmissible, more infections overall raise the risk that more cases will be serious.
While experts gather the data, some governments rushed to act, while others sought to calm fears that the new variant would land countries back on square one.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted Thursday that the situation in the UK is different from last year because of the widespread use of vaccines and the ability to test.
He said that if people want to attend an event "the sensible thing to do is to get a test and to make sure that you're being cautious".
"But we're not saying that we want to cancel stuff, we're not locking stuff down, and the fastest route back to normality is to get boosted," he said.
Professor Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, however, struck a more cautious note, advising people earlier in the week to limit their social contacts and put the priority on those that are the most important.
On Thursday, he told a parliamentary committee hearing that the government could have to review measures if vaccines prove less effective than expected against omicron.
He said that "would be a material change to how ministers viewed the risks going forward".
Among those taking the more cautious route was Queen Elizabeth II, who opted to cancel her traditional pre-Christmas family lunch as cases soared.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, has been in a partial lockdown since November to curb a delta-driven surge and while infection numbers are declining now the government this week ordered elementary schools to close for Christmas a week early amid fears omicron will fuel a new rise.
Authorities also sped up a vaccination booster campaign as caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte cited Britain as an example of how swiftly the variant can spread.
EU leaders gathering in Brussels for a summit Thursday sought to balance tackling the surge of infections across the continent while keeping borders open with common policies throughout the bloc.
"Let's try to maintain the European solution," Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said.
"If every country goes it alone again we'll be even further from home."
But ahead of the meeting, European nations already were acting to rein in the spread of the virus.
Greece and Italy tightened entry requirements for travellers earlier this week, and Portugal decided to keep stricter border controls in place beyond their planned Jan 9 end.
On Thursday, France said it will slap restrictions on travellers arriving from the UK, which is no longer part of the EU, putting limits on reasons for travelling and requiring 48-hour isolation upon arrival.
The new measures will take effect first thing Saturday.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex said the measures are being imposed "in the face of the extremely rapid spread of the omicron variant in the UK".
The abrupt move comes after weeks of political tensions between France and Britain over fishing rights and how to deal with migration across the English Channel.
It also comes as France's government is desperately trying to avoid a new lockdown that would hurt the economy and cloud President Emmanuel Macron's expected reelection campaign.
Britain said it was not planning reciprocal measures.
Fearing a raft of cancelled parties and a general drop in business at the height of the crucial and lucrative Christmas season, British restaurants and pubs demanded government help Thursday.
They said concerns about the new variant have already wiped out 2 billion pounds ($2.6 billion) in sales over the last 10 days.
Across London, restaurants which would normally see bustling crowds clinking glasses and tucking into festive meals were reporting droves of cancellations and empty rooms.
"It's a complete nightmare. This week should be the busiest week of the year for hospitality," said Sally Abe, a chef at the Conrad Hotel in central London.
"It's everywhere, everybody's cancelling, but there's no support from the government."
The Bank of England has raised interest rates to combat surging consumer prices, becoming the first central bank among the world's leading economies to do so since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The move Thursday is likely to make mortgages and loans more costly.
The bank increased its main interest rate from a record low of 0.1% to 0.25% to rein in rising inflation stemming from high energy costs, labor shortages and other factors as the global economy recovers from the pandemic.
It was somewhat of a surprise because of the huge economic uncertainties surrounding the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The Bank of England's decision comes a day after the U.S. Federal Reserve announced it would speed up its tightening of credit as inflation reached a 40-year high in November.
In contrast, the European Central Bank is expected to sound a note of caution as it also meets Thursday.
The European Central Bank decided on Thursday not to abruptly pull back pandemic support for the economy as the new omicron variant of COVID-19 stirs uncertainty about the recovery, despite inflation hitting record highs and the US speeding up its stimulus exit.
The cautious approach comes as the 19 European Union member countries using the euro already are seeing the economic rebound slow because of a rise in infections from the delta variant and shortages of parts and raw materials.
That has held back an economy that depends on trade and supply chains.
The bank confirmed that it will phase out its 1.85 trillion euro ($2.1 trillion) pandemic bond purchase stimulus on schedule next year but will maintain some of the effect by moving part of the purchases to another support program.
The bond purchases drive down longer-term borrowing rates and aim to keep financing affordable so businesses can get through the pandemic slowdown.
While many questions are unanswered about the fast-spreading omicron variant, including whether it can evade vaccines and the likelihood of severe illness, it didn't stop the Bank of England from raising interest rates in the United Kingdom.
Despite surging numbers of COVID-19 infections in the U.K., it became the first central bank among the world's leading economies to raise rates since the pandemic began.
Analysts don't expect a first European Central Bank interest rate increase from record lows until well into 2023.
In contrast to the ECB, the US Federal Reserve decided to speed up its exit from pandemic crisis support, saying it would reduce its monthly bond purchases at twice the pace it had previously set and will likely end them in March.
That puts the Fed on a path to start raising rates as early as the first half of next year.
In the eurozone, inflation is well above the European bank's goal of 2%, but bank officials and many economists say the spike in consumer prices is temporary and will likely ease next year.
The bank's most recent staff projections foresee inflation of only 1.5% in 2023.
New forecasts, including the first inflation outlook for 2024, are due at Thursday's meeting.
It's a different situation than that faced by the Fed, where U.S.
stimulus and infrastructure spending on top of a robust rebound in growth have resulted in stronger inflation pressures.
The eurozone economy grew 2.2% in the third quarter from the previous quarter, but economists say that pace has already slowed significantly due to parts shortages and higher virus cases that discourage face-to-face indoor activity and add burdens on travel.
The European Central Bank said it would end its pandemic support program in March as expected but would add stimulus to another program that has been purchasing 20 billion euros of bonds per month.
Those monthly purchases will be boosted to 40 billion euros in the second quarter and 30 billion euros in the third quarter.
The program would then revert to 20 billion but would then would run for "as long as necessary," an open-ended commitment.
France will sharply restrict travel to and from Britain because of fast-spreading cases of the omicron coronavirus variant, putting limits on reasons for travelling and requiring 48-hour isolation upon arrival, the government said Thursday.
The move suddenly disrupted travel plans for families and others on both sides of the English Channel.
Travellers questioned whether the measures were politically driven, and UK officials suggested they were pointless.
With omicron now seeded around the world, "red list" travel bans "wouldn't be effective or proportionate," said Boris Johnson's spokesman, Max Blain.
He said Johnson hadn't spoken to French President Emmanuel Macron about the move, and that Britain doesn't plan to take a reciprocal measure.
The new French measures will take effect first thing Saturday, just after midnight, "in the face of the extremely rapid spread of the omicron variant in the UK", French Prime Minister Jean Castex said in a statement.
The French government is holding a special virus security meeting Friday that will address growing pressure on hospitals in France from rising infections in recent weeks.
Delta remains the dominant variant in France, but omicron is spreading so fast in Britain that it's raising concerns across the Channel.
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on BFM television that tourism and business travel to and from Britain will be strongly curtailed, and all those arriving from Britain will need to have a negative virus test less than 24 hours old, and to test again upon arrival and isolate "in a place they choose" for at least 48 hours pending the result.
The measures will apply to vaccinated travellers as well as unvaccinated travellers.
UK travel industry officials expressed dismay at the French restrictions, describing the new rules as a hammer blow to the industry.
Travel officials demanded government help for battered businesses.
"The winter sports and school travel markets are particularly exposed, and the government must now bring forward a support package if we are not to see company failures and job losses," said Mark Tanzer, chief executive of travel and trade association Abta.
Tanzer said the sector has had little opportunity to make money since the start of the pandemic nearly two years ago, and will now be faced with another wave of cancellations.
There are several hundred flights scheduled between Britain and France over the week leading up to Christmas, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium.
That's the equivalent of more than 90,000 seats, though the new restrictions mean they are likely to be largely empty.
The UK recorded the highest number of confirmed new COVID-19 infections Wednesday since the pandemic began, and England's chief medical officer warned the situation is likely to get worse as the omicron variant drives a new wave of illness during the Christmas holidays.
According to France's new measures, citizens of any EU country can still enter France from Britain, in addition to non-EU citizens with a long-term EU residency permit or long-term visa, and some other categories of people including truckers who are only transiting France, diplomats and health care workers.
All other foreigners are not allowed in.
People will only be allowed to leave France for Britain if they aren't French, or if they have an urgent health or legal reason to travel.
The abrupt move comes after weeks of political tensions between France and Britain over post-Brexit fishing rights and how to deal with migration in dangerous small boats across the English Channel.
It also comes as France's government is desperately trying to avoid a new lockdown or stricter measures that would hurt the economy and cloud President Emmanuel Macron's expected campaign for the April presidential election.