Covid-19: What will the months ahead bring for Europe?

Unsurprisingly, the world has now been told that there is another potentially dangerous new “variant of concern” which has been called Omicron by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In the UK, we have become accustomed with a lack of Covid-19 measures since the alleged “freedom day” on 19 July 2021; yet, as the media reports on yet another Covid-19 variant, the public have been told to wear compulsory face masks “in shops and on public transport”. This inevitably leads to the question: are we heading for another deadly winter for the NHS, or is the government panicking unnecessarily? Of course, unless we have a crystal ball, no-one can answer that question with absolute certainty. Instead, it is vital that we all comply with the rules which acts as a simple way to protect each other. 

In a time of uncertainty, there is reason to be positive, however. There is a growing consensus that the Omicron variant leads to mostly “mild symptoms”. The latest message from the WHO is, ‘don’t panic’, in response to the Omicron variant; however, the months ahead will truly be the test of the vaccination programme. The extent to which the government maintains minimal restrictions will be largely dependent on the ability for the NHS to cope – the backlog of cases and staff shortages means that the NHS is still under considerable pressure. This being said, the government has reintroduced compulsory masks to slow the rate of transmission despite extensive debate over the effectiveness of face masks over the past 20 months. However, the pre-emptive approach is arguably more effective in its ability to slow the transmission rate than the governments previous wait-and-see approach which has been the signature move of this Conservative government. One can only hope that this winter will not result in the complete turmoil that wreaked havoc on our lives last year. 

Despite the UK vaccination process being reported as a great success for the Conservative government, there is little difference between the UK and its European neighbours. In terms of vaccination rates, the UK has now fully vaccinated 46.5 million people, which equates to 69.1% according to Our World in Data. If we look to our European neighbours, the UK’s vaccination rate does not differ largely: in France 47.3 million people have been vaccinated (70.2%); 57.3 million people (68.9%) have been fully vaccinated in Germany and 37.7 million people (79.5%) have been vaccinated. Even though high vaccination rates is something to be praised, we should not lose sight of those who have lost their lives to this disease. As of 4 December 2021, 145,000 people in the UK have lost their lives to Covid-19; this remains the highest death toll in western Europe, which has rightly invited criticism from both the public and the media respectively. 

Interestingly, as we head into the final month of 2021, some European countries are cracking down on the freedoms that the unvaccinated have. There is a growing consensus that Germany will impose compulsory vaccination for all Germans “from February”, according to The Guardian. This comes at a time when hospitals in Germany are “operating at or over capacity”, meaning that these drastic measures are used by the government to ensure the operation of German hospitals. Although Germany’s measures may seem like an attack on the ability for an individual to make a choice on whether to get vaccinated, their extreme measures reflect the actions of other European countries. For example, in Austria, restrictions on freedoms has been a feature of the government’s response since it was reported on 15 November 2021. The BBC reports: “Unvaccinated people will only be allowed to leave home for limited reasons, like working or buying food.” Furthermore, in Greece, “the government is making vaccines mandatory for all Greeks over 60 years of age.” Governments across Europe arguably resort to such drastic measures in order to slow the rate of transmission, to save lives and the economy. This raises an important question: should the government be allowed to order its citizens to get vaccinated? 

Ultimately, the safety of the vaccine has been thoroughly proven, and the high take-up of the vaccine across many highly developed countries suggests that the vast majority of people are willing to be vaccinated to save their own lives and to ensure the safety of those around them. However, if taken out of the context of a global pandemic, the ability of the government to instruct its citizens to comply with the rules or be fined, is arguably something to be worried about because it directly undermines individual autonomy. The pandemic thus allows what would otherwise be seen as extraordinary power and control over its citizens, perhaps something even resembling an authoritarian regime. 

As mentioned previously, none of us can be entirely sure what the next few months will bring. With the high vaccination rate, the hope remains that this will be enough to minimise hospitalisations, and as a result, maintain a considerably lower death rate. A government report argues that: “Results using both approaches provided similar estimates suggesting that between 6,100 and 6,600 deaths have been averted as a result of the COVID-19 vaccination programme up to the end of February 2021.”, demonstrating the success of the vaccination scheme in terms of limiting additional deaths as a result of this virus. However, in the UK, it remains to be seen whether the government will decide to impose harsher restrictions as we progress further into the winter months. The ability for the NHS to cope under increased (and what some would call unprecedented) pressure will surely determine the extent and nature of the restrictions if introduced.

The featured image is File:Europe countries map en 2.png, from Wikimedia Commons, under license CC BY-SA 3.0 (link to deed).

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