Europe is facing a “tipping point” in the course of the pandemic as the rise in infections is set to be made worse by the new variant and mixing over the Christmas period, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.
Hans Kluge, the regional director for Europe at the WHO, on Thursday warned that Europe must present a “united front” in order to beat COVID-19 as the continent braces for a difficult period.
He said: "This moment represents a tipping-point in the course of the pandemic - where science, politics, technology and values must form a united front, in order to push back this persistent and elusive virus."
Kluge warned cases were rising across the continent, with half of Europe reporting more than 150 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 in the week ending on 6 January.
He said: "As we enter 2021 over 230 million people in the European region are living in countries under full national lockdown with more countries set to announce lockdown measures in the coming week. Transmission across the Region has sustained at very high rates of infection."
The WHO European region saw more than 26 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 580,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in 2020.
Kluge said excess deaths in 2020 saw a five-fold increase compared to 2019.
“This is an alarming situation, which means that for a short period of time need to do more than we have done and to intensify the public health and social measures to be certain we can flatten the steep vertical line in some countries which may not have seen to date,” Kluge said.
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The WHO also warned the next few weeks would become increasingly difficult as the spike caused by the holiday period began to impact different countries health systems.
Kluge said: “The impact of the holiday period, of gatherings of families, communities, and any relaxation of physical distancing and mask-wearing behaviour for example, cannot yet be determined.
“Testing and notification activities may have also been lower during the festive season, resulting in an incomplete picture of the current epidemiological situation.”
Despite the increase in infections seen across the continent during the last months of 2020 many European nations pressed ahead with their plans to relax lockdown restrictions over the Christmas period.
The UK initially planned to relax its COVID restrictions over Christmas allowing up to three households to mix over five days.
As infection numbers continued to rise across the country the four nations of the UK rolled back on its plans and restricted household mixing to just Christmas Day and banned it for anyone the South East and London which had just been put under Tier 4.
Other European nations also relaxed their rules over Christmas even as they planned for tighter restrictions.
The Netherlands entered a lockdown on 22 December but allowed households to have up to three visitors between 24 and 26 December.
Germany did something similar, with a lockdown on 23 December but relaxation immediately after between 24 and 26 December with a maximum of 10 people allowed to mix over Christmas.
Spain also relaxed its rules between 23 December and 6 January people to travel across the country to visit family.
Kluge also warned the spread of new variants of COVID-19 posed a risk to European nations.
He pointed out it was becoming evident the new more transmissible version of COVID-19 which is believed to have originated in Kent is becoming the dominant strain of the virus in the UK.
He said 22 European countries had detected the variant and it may become the dominant strain in Denmark.
“With increased transmissibility and similar disease severity, the variant does, however, raise alarm: without increased control to slow its spread, there will be an increased impact on already stressed and pressurized health facilities,” Kluge said.
He closed his comments by noting the rollout of the vaccine was good news for many but implored nations to share their doses to ensure no community was left behind.
He said: “Be it vaccine allocation and prioritisation, access to medical supplies and tests, public health measures and policies to control the pandemic, we have a responsibility to base decisions on the core values that are at the heart of humanity: solidarity, equity and social justice.”
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