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France bans most UK travel

BELPER, UK: A woman receives a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Babington Hospital in Belper yesterday as the UK steps up the country’s booster drive to fight a “tidal wave” of Omicron. — AFP

PARIS/BRUSSELS: France said yesterday it would ban non-essential travel to and from Britain in a bid to curb the lightning spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, which is forecast to quickly become the dominant risk for strained hospital systems worldwide.

Countries around the world began urging against foreign travel while ramping up domestic restrictions to battle Omicron, which scientists believe spreads faster than any other variant even if uncertainty remains over how dangerous it is. Britain has seen case levels explode in recent weeks to record levels amid fears the variant could overwhelm the health system during Christmas dinners and parties.

Starting at midnight Saturday (2300 GMT Friday), the French government said, travellers will need “an essential reason to travel to, or come from, the UK, both for the unvaccinated and vaccinated… People cannot travel for touristic or professional reasons.” It added that French citizens and EU nationals could still return to France from the UK, but they will now need a negative COVID test less than 24 hours old, and a blanket quarantine will be enforced upon return to France.

Government spokesman Gabriel Attal told BFM television the new restrictions would be “even more drastic” than the existing regime.

Britain on Wednesday recorded a record 78,610 laboratory-confirmed COVID cases, with scientists predicting even higher rates as Omicron is believed to spread much faster than the currently dominant Delta variant. “It’s down to individual countries to decide their approach,” a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in response to the French restrictions.

110,000 fake health passes

Some 110,000 fake health passes are in circulation in France, the interior ministry said yesterday, with hundreds of investigations launched against makers and users of the forged documents. The health pass, showing proof of vaccination, COVID recovery or a recent negative test result, is required for access to public transport, restaurants and cultural events.

As they investigate users and distributors of the fake documents, police have found that medical staff is sometimes complicit in the fraud, said Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin. “The problem with the fake health passes is that they often involve the collusion of real doctors or real nurses,” he told the France 2 broadcaster. This makes offences “very difficult to prove”.

Some 100 people had been arrested as a result of 400 investigations since the health pass became mandatory in parts of public life, Darmanin said. The lightning spread of Omicron in Europe and elsewhere added a sense of urgency to an EU summit yesterday, with leaders struggling to present a united, bloc-wide approach. Projections that the highly infectious COVID strain could be dominant in the EU as early as next month have pushed the issue to the top of the agenda and ignited fears of a health crisis.

Arriving at the Brussels meeting, Irish premier Micheal Martin said Omicron was “of significant concern obviously in terms of the capacity of that variant to spread rapidly and create pressure on our societies and our health systems. “So today we’ll be looking for greater coordination on a number of fronts,” he said.

As France imposed drastic new restrictions on arrivals from Britain, which is outside the EU and particularly hard hit by the variant, Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Europe would have to expect “new measures”.

“The one answer to Omicron right now is the acceleration of our vaccination programs with particular emphasis on the booster shots,” he told reporters, describing the measures as “a battle against time”.

The summit will also tackle other big topics pressing hard on EU capitals, in particular the Russian military build-up that could presage an invasion of Ukraine.— AFP

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