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PARIS (Reuters) – France announced an easing of COVID restrictions from Monday and the British Minister of Health said the restrictions were an ‘absolute last resort’, as governments face difficult choices between controlling virus and keep economies open.
Coronavirus cases have increased globally in recent weeks, fueled by the emergence of the highly transmissible variant of omicron, and the pandemic has once again put the brakes on New Year’s celebrations.
Europe went through 100 million known cases on Saturday, and that country’s governments are keen to prevent health systems from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 while avoiding sanctioning restrictions.
People fully vaccinated in France who test positive will only have to self-isolate for seven days and can leave quarantine after five days if they test negative.
The rule change should allow a “benefit-risk balance aimed at ensuring control of the virus while maintaining socio-economic life,” said the French Ministry of Health.
According to official AFP figures, 17 of Europe’s 52 countries or territories have broken their previous record for most cases in a single week.
The countries with the highest ratio of infections per 100,000 population in the world were all in Europe, with Denmark posting the worst figure of 2,045.
However, some studies have raised hopes that omicron does not cause COVID as severe as the delta variant, with some governments taking this into account in their decisions to relax restrictions.
But the World Health Organization has warned of difficult times ahead, saying omicron could lead to “a tsunami of cases” because of its high transmissibility.
Virus outbreaks have dampened New Year’s celebrations around the world, with events canceled and tens of millions of people spending the holidays under some form of restriction.
The UK government, which is responsible for health policies in England only, has put in some precautions but has so far refused to curb socialization and big events despite a record number of cases last week.
He cited the less dramatic increase in hospitalizations relative to the number of cases as justification.
“Restrictions on our freedom must be an absolute last resort and the British people rightly expect us to do everything in our power to avoid them,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid wrote in the Daily Mail newspaper.
“I have been determined that we have to give ourselves the best chance to live alongside the virus,” he added, noting the “enormous health, social and economic costs of lockdowns”.
Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have all put in place new rules since Christmas limiting gatherings.
Despite concerns about the virus, populations in many parts of the world are growing weary of the restrictions, sparking regular protests and mistrust in some countries.
Dutch police on Saturday disrupted a COVID-violating rave that hundreds witnessed at an abandoned factory, local media reported.
Dozens of police entered the makeshift place in the central town of Rijswijk and hundreds more rallied to drive people away, NOS TV said.
The illegal rave drew people from all over, with locals claiming to have seen vehicles arriving from France and Germany, but also from as far away as Spain and Italy.
And in Stuttgart, Germany, around 100 activists attempted to stage an unauthorized protest against vaccines and COVID restrictions.
The virus was also on the minds of some worshipers who traveled to the top of Mount Mitake in Japan to pray at a shrine and watch the first sunrise of 2022.
“Naturally, I prayed that a new year would be a year in which the coronavirus goes away,” said visitor Rie Mogi.