European states expand boosters, tighten curbs amid COVID surge

Czech Republic declares a state of emergency and Slovakia enters lockdown as COVID infections rise.

The European Commission proposed on Thursday that EU residents will need to have booster shots if they want to travel [File: Lisa Leutner/AP]

European countries have expanded COVID-19 booster vaccinations, launched plans to get shots to young children and tightened some curbs as the continent battled a surge in coronavirus cases and concerns about its economic fallout grew.

Slovakia went into a two-week lockdown, the Czech government declared a 30-day state of emergency involving early closure of bars and clubs and a ban on Christmas markets, while Germany on Thursday crossed the threshold of 100,000 COVID-19-related deaths.

Europe is at the heart of the latest COVID-19 wave, reporting a million new infections about every two days and now accounting for nearly two-thirds of new infections worldwide.

The European Commission proposed on Thursday that EU residents will need to have booster shots if they want to travel to another country in the bloc next summer without the need for tests or quarantines.

In France, authorities announced that booster shots would be made available to everyone aged over 18, rather than just the over-65s and those with underlying health issues.

Many countries are rolling out or increasing the use of booster shots, although the World Health Organization wants the most vulnerable people worldwide to be fully vaccinated first.

In Africa, where just 6.6 percent of the population of 1.2 billion is fully vaccinated, many countries are struggling with the logistics of accelerating their inoculation campaigns as deliveries of vaccines finally pick up, the head of Africa’s disease control body said on Thursday.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on Wednesday recommended vaccine boosters for all adults, with priority for those over 40.

The number of new daily cases in Germany hit a record of 75,961 on Thursday and its total death toll reached 100,119 since the start of the pandemic, according to the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases.

Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from Berlin, said authorities in Germany are struggling with the surge in cases, and some hospitals have been forced to send patients to other European countries.

“In Germany … many of the hospitals are filling up with people who have not been vaccinated and have caught the Delta variant of the coronavirus, which as we know is much more infectious,” Kane said.

“And with hospitals filling up, they can’t find enough places, so they are asking European allies to take in some of their patients,” he added.

Shots for youngsters

There is a growing push in some countries to inoculate younger children.

The EU’s medicines watchdog on Thursday approved the use of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine in 5- to 11-year-olds at a lower dose, after authorising it for children as young as 12 in May. The European Commission will issue a final decision, which is expected on Friday.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were preparing to inoculate younger children following the European Medicines Agency’s approval, although deliveries of the lower doses are not due until December 20.

In France, where the number of infections is doubling every 11 days, Health Minister Olivier Veran said he would ask health regulators to examine whether 5- to 11-year-olds should be able to get vaccinated.

Nearly half a million lives across Europe have been saved due to vaccination, among people aged 60 years and over since the vaccine rollout began, the World Health Organization’s regional office said on Thursday in a study with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Stricter curbs

Many European countries are toughening curbs.

The state of emergency announced by the Czech Republic allows the government to order restrictions on public life. Authorities there ordered bars and clubs to close down at 10pm (21:00 GMT), banned Christmas markets and capped attendance at cultural and sports events at 1,000 people.

Slovakia’s two-week lockdown from Thursday followed neighbouring Austria, which began a lockdown on Monday. Slovakia, with one of the EU’s lowest vaccination rates, reported a critical situation in hospitals and new infections that topped global tables.

Authorities ordered all but essential shops and services closed and banned people from travelling outside their districts unless going to work, school, or a doctor. Gatherings of more than six people were banned.

French authorities said rules on wearing face masks will be tightened and checks on health passes used for entry to public places will be increased. But officials said there was no need to follow European countries that have reimposed lockdowns.

In Germany, Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock said the new government, comprising the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP), had set itself 10 days to decide if further restrictions are needed.

Much of Germany has already introduced rules to restrict access to indoor activities to people who have been vaccinated or have recovered.

In the Netherlands, the number of coronavirus patients in hospital has hit levels not seen since early May, and experts have warned that hospitals will reach full capacity in little more than a week if the virus is not contained.

The Dutch government said it would take strong measures to curb infections. National broadcaster NOS reported on Thursday the government’s leading Outbreak Management Team has advised the closure of restaurants, bars, and non-essential stores by 5pm as part of a new package of lockdown measures.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies