French daily Covid cases above 200,000 as Italy considers stricter green pass. France has registered a national and European record for new coronavirus infections as the Omicron variant fuels a surge in cases across the continent, with multiple countries hitting new highs.
France on Wednesday reported 208,000 cases in the previous 24 hours, up from its previous record of almost 180,000 set the day before.
“This means that 24 hours a day, day and night, every second in our country, two French people are diagnosed positive for the coronavirus,” said the health minister, Olivier Véran. “We have never experienced such a situation,” he said, calling the increase “dizzying”.
He said the situation in France’s hospitals was already worrying because of the Delta variant. Although the “massive wave” of Omicron cases had yet to have an impact on the healthcare system, he said it would inevitably do so eventually.
The UK, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Greece have all reported new case records this week, while beyond Europe the rolling seven-day average of new cases in the US hit a high of 267,000 on Tuesday, with Omicron accounting for 59% of these.
New infections in Australia rose to nearly 18,300 on Wednesday, eclipsing the previous high of about 11,300 a day earlier. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said the country needed “a gear change”.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said the simultaneous circulation of the Delta and Omicron variants was driving an alarming wave of infections that could lead to increases in hospitalisation and deaths.
Its director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he was “highly concerned that Omicron, spreading at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases”. The WHO has said Omicron poses a “very high” risk and could submerge health systems.
Studies in Britain, South Africa and Denmark suggest Omicron is less deadly than some of its predecessors, but the huge numbers of people testing positive mean hospitals in some countries might soon be overwhelmed and businesses could struggle to carry on operating because of workers having to quarantine.
The rapid transmission rate of the new variant is forcing governments to find a delicate balance between reimposing restrictions to protect hospitals and keeping economies and societies open.
Spain reduced its Covid self-isolation period to seven days from 10, even as the number of new infections hit record highs, after businesses expressed fears the Omicron surge would leave them with mounting staff shortages.
In Italy, regional leaders also urged the government to drop or reduce the isolation period for people who have received three shots of a Covid vaccine and are subsequently exposed to someone who has tested positive. Authorities reported another new record daily tally of 98,030 cases on Wednesday.
“We can’t block the country by quarantining the contacts of people who test positive. Covid has changed, the majority of the population is vaccinated, we must also revisit the measures to confront it,” said Giovanni Toti, the president of the Liguria region.
The government is also considering a proposal to tighten its “green pass” system – which requires public and private sector workers to prove vaccination, recovery or a negative test to enter the workplace – by excluding workers who can only show a negative test.
French MPs on Wednesday started debating a new law that would allow only vaccinated people to enter bars, restaurants, cinemas, museums, sports arenas and other public venues, with a negative Covid test no longer to be accepted.
Italy is one of several countries to have cancelled or restricted public celebrations since the resurgence of the virus.
Greece, which has also banned Christmas and new year festivities in public places, on Wednesday imposed new restrictions on the hospitality sector, bringing forward measures planned for early January, after authorities announced a new daily record of 21,657 cases, more than double Monday’s figure.
Bars, nightclubs and restaurants will have to close at midnight, with no standing customers and no music, with the exception of New Year’s Eve when they can stay open until 2am. “These measures, if they are applied in our entirety, will allow us from mid-January to go back to our normal lives,” said the health minister, Thanos Plevris.
Some countries are still waiting for the Omicron wave to hit. Case numbers are still falling in Germany, but its health minister, Karl Lauterbach, said the true number could be much higher because fewer tests were being done over the holiday season.
He said the real incidence was “two or three times as high” as Wednesday’s reported rate of 205 Covid cases per 100,000 people over seven days, the lowest since November, adding that a sharp jump was expected “within a very short period of time”.
On Tuesday Germany closed nightclubs and ordered organisers of sports events to hold them behind closed doors. It also limited private gatherings to 10 vaccinated people, or just two households if an unvaccinated person is present.
The rules came on top of restrictions already hitting the unvaccinated, who are barred from shops, restaurants and cultural events. Lauterbach said the rules may have to be toughened further, as existing measures “will not be enough to prevent a significant rise in Omicron cases”.
In Belgium, however, where case numbers are also relatively low, the government reversed course on Wednesday, allowing theatres and cinemas to reopen after a court suspended their closure.
Meanwhile, other European countries are still grappling with the Delta variant. Poland reported 794 Covid-related deaths on Wednesday, the highest number in the fourth wave of the pandemic. The deputy health minister, Waldemar Kraska, said more than 75% of those who died were unvaccinated.
There has been another record rise in the number of daily Covid cases in the UK, with 183,037 reported on Wednesday.
It is the first time since 24 December that data on daily case numbers has been made available for all four UK countries.
According to data released by the Scottish government, 15,849 people been reported to have tested positive for Covid in the last 24 hours, the highest daily total since the start of the pandemic, surpassing the previous record of 11,030 on 26 December. However the data comes with a warning that the figures include a backlog from before Christmas.
The daily figure for England also broke records, with 138,287 cases reported on Wednesday compared with 117,093 on Tuesday.
The figures refer to the number of cases by date reported, rather than by the specimen date, and reflect infections that are picked up through testing.
Experts have noted it could be several days yet before the impact of infections caught over Christmas becomes apparent in the data. Reinfections are not included in the figures.