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Omicron and Delta spell return of restrictions

 Governments around the world are considering implementing fresh Covid-19 restrictions
Associated Press Reporters

Governments around the world are considering implementing fresh Covid-19 restrictions as the Delta variant pushes up cases in Europe and fears grow over the Omicron strain.

Greeks over the age of 60 who refuse coronavirus vaccinations could be hit with monthly fines of more than one-quarter of their pensions — a get-tough policy that the country’s politicians say will cost votes but save lives.

While in Israel, potential carriers of the new Omicron variant could be tracked by the country’s domestic security agency in seeming defiance of a previous Supreme Court ruling limiting such a measure.

Weekly protests in the Netherlands over the country’s 5pm lockdown and other new restrictions have descended into violence, despite what appears to be overwhelming acceptance of the rules.

It is a complicated calculation made more difficult by the prospect of backlashes, increased social divisions and, for many politicians, the fear of being voted out of office.

“I know the frustration that we all feel with this Omicron variant, the sense of exhaustion that we could be going through this all over again,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday, two days after England announced that masks would be mandatory again in shops and on public transport and required all visitors from abroad to undergo a Covid-19 test and quarantine.

“We’re trying to take a balanced and proportioned approach.”

New restrictions, or variations on the old ones, are cropping up around the world, especially in Europe, where leaders are at pains to explain what looks like a failed promise: that mass vaccinations would mean an end to limitations.

In the Netherlands, where the curfew came into effect last week, mounted police patrol to break up demonstrations against the new lockdown, which is among the world’s strictest. But most people appear resigned to the situation.

In Greece, residents over 60 face fines of 100 euros (£85) a month if they fail to get vaccinated. The fines will be added onto tax bills in January.

About 17% of Greeks over-60 are unvaccinated despite various efforts to encourage them to get their jabs, and nine in 10 Greeks currently dying of Covid-19 are over 60.

Employing a carrot instead of a stick, Slovakia’s government is proposing to give people 60 and older a 500-euros (£425) bonus if they get vaccinated.

In Israel, the government this week approved resuming the use of a controversial phone-monitoring technology to perform contact tracing of people confirmed to have the Omicron variant.

Israeli rights groups have decried the use of the technology as a violation of privacy rights, and others have noted that its accuracy in indoor places is flawed, leading to large numbers of people being wrongly flagged.

The Supreme Court earlier this year issued a ruling limiting its use.

In South Africa, which alerted the World Health Organisation to the Omicron variant, previous restrictions included curfews and a ban on alcohol sales.

This time, President Cyril Ramaphosa is simply calling on more people to get vaccines “to help restore the social freedoms we all yearn for”.

In the US, there is little appetite among Republicans or Democrats for a return to lockdowns or strict contact tracing. Enforcing even simple measures like mask-wearing has become a political flashpoint. And Republicans are suing to block the Biden administration’s new get-vaccinated-or-get-tested requirement for large employers.

President Joe Biden, whose political fate may well hinge on controlling the pandemic, has used a combination of pressure and urgent appeals to induce people to get their first jabs or a booster.

But Mr Biden has said the US will fight Covid-19 and the new variant “not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more”.

Chile has taken a harder line since the emergence of Omicron, with people over the age of 18 required to receive a booster dose every six months to keep their pass that allows them access to restaurants, hotels and public gatherings.

And Chile never dropped its requirement to wear masks in public – probably the most common renewed restriction around the world.

Dr Madhukar Pai, of McGill University’s School of Population and Public Health in Canada, said that masks were an easy and pain-free way of keeping transmission down, but that cheap, at-home tests needed to be much more widespread, in both rich and poor countries.

Dr Pai said requiring boosters universally, as is essentially the case in Israel, Chile and many countries in Europe, including France, would only prolong the pandemic by making it harder to get first doses to the developing world. This raised the odds of still more variants.

He said lockdowns should be the very last choice.

“Lockdowns only come up when a system is failing,” he said. “We do it when the hospital system is about to collapse. It’s a last resort that indicates you have failed to do all the right things.”

That is not how lockdowns are seen in communist China. At each new outbreak, entire cities are sealed, and sometimes millions of people undergo mass testing.

In the strictest lockdowns, people are forbidden to leave their homes, and food is brought to their door.

China has not so far seen the need for new restrictions in response to the Omicron variant.

The head of China’s Centre for Disease Control’s Epidemiology unit, Wu Zunyou, said Omicron, for now, posed a manageable threat, and “no matter what variant, our public health measures are effective”.

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