The EU has warned that the highly contagious coronavirus variant first found in Britain is now having “a significant impact” in other European countries, and said its spread “must be stopped at all costs”.
“We cannot be complacent,” Stella Kyriakides, the bloc’s health commissioner, said on Wednesday. “We cannot let it get out of hand. So we are ready to help member states in the area of genomic sequencing of samples. There is no way around this.”
Concerns were also shared during the virtual meeting of EU health ministers of a “significant under-reporting” of the new variant by member states, with the commission urging health ministries to make detection of the mutation a priority.
Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, cited the UK-detected variant as he stressed the need for people to further reduce their contact with others, saying the country would not be able to lift all measures aimed at curbing the pandemic by the end of the month.
“One thing is already evident – it will not be possible to loosen all restrictions on 1 February,” Spahn said, adding that it would take another two or three months for the effects of the vaccination campaign to kick in.
Berlin was set to approve stricter controls on people entering the country after the chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Tuesday reportedly told a working group of her Christian Democratic Union that the lockdown could last until early April.
In Denmark, the prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, said an extension of existing lockdown measures, due to end on 17 January, was “clearly necessary … not least to ensure that the British mutation does not spread”.
The Danish parliament is halting some of its activities, including debates on several new bills, for a month. Last week it announced it would only allow flights into the country on which every passenger had tested negative for Covid-19.
In Spain the regions of Galicia, La Rioja, and Cantabria, have become the country’s latest to tighten restrictions amid a spiralling national infection rate that officials have blamed on lax adherence to the rules over Christmas.
After a lull in new cases late November infections surged through much of December and into early January, doubling the incidence of the virus, as measured over the past 14 days, in just three weeks to 454 cases per 100,000 people.
Unlike other EU countries that have extended, or are preparing to extend, nationwide lockdowns, Spanish authorities have repeatedly rejected a new national confinement, instead delegating regional authorities for the imposition of curfews, limits on gatherings and restrictions on business opening hours.
Galicia on Wednesday banned all non-essential travel in the seven largest cities, ordered bars and restaurants to close at 4pm, and brought forward a curfew to 10pm, while La Rioja closed non-essential businesses at 5pm and limited group meetings to four people. Shops in Cantabria were banned from opening at weekends.
Meanwhile, a judge in Santiago de Compostela, in the north-west, ruled that a woman in a care home in the city should be vaccinated despite her daughter’s opposition. The judge accepted the woman had “very limited” cognitive capacity to decide for herself but said that despite the daughter’s fears of possible secondary effects vaccination would incur less risk for the 84-year-old than holding back.
“While the act of vaccination itself carries a risk,” said the judge, “so does not getting vaccinated.” He referred in his ruling to WHO advice, saying the longer vaccination was delayed and the more the number of cases grew “the higher the risk”.
The top scientific adviser to the French government, Jean-François Delfraissy, said there was no need to close schools in France yet but new restrictive measures had to be taken to slow further coronavirus infections, in particular the spread of the variant found in Britain.
“We think English data on the variant is not definitive enough to lead us to recommend the closing of schools in France,” Delfraissy said, adding that the challenge with the variant, which now accounts for about 1% of new Covid-19 infections in France, was “not to eliminate it but to slow its progression”.
Italy’s health minister warned against “unforgivable” distractions as the ruling coalition looked close to collapse. The minister, Roberto Speranza , urged colleagues to stay focused on the health crisis, which has killed almost 80,000 people in Italy.
“Let’s keep political infighting, real or presumed electoral tensions, far and separate from the health of Italians,” Speranza told parliament. “It would really be an unforgivable mistake to get distracted or to slow down near the finish line.”
The government, led by Guiseppe Conte, the prime minister, is on the verge of imploding following weeks of internal criticism from the former premier Matteo Renzi, leader of the Italia Viva party.
In Russia, the president, Vladimir Putin, ordered officials to begin mass vaccinations from next week, touting Russia’s homemade shot, Sputnik V, which was registered before the start of large-scale clinical trials, as the world’s best. “I ask you to begin the mass vaccination of the entire population next week,” Putin told officials at a televised government meeting. “The Russian vaccine is the best in the world.”