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President's Message December 2021 Part 2: European experience

Publication date: 24.12.2021
Author: John Middleton

Dear Colleagues, I write to you on the verge of Christmas, and midwinter festivities wherever you are. You can read this blog alongside my piece ‘From the English correspondent’.

You can get a full current picture of the COVID pandemic in Europe at ASPHER’s COVID-19 Task Force page and its weekly European situation reporting.

European governments are on high alert for Omicron and many governments have reacted decisively.


In Europe, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland and UK are still in the grip of exponential growth of infections, with Omicron taking over as the prominent variant of concern. 

Czechia, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Belgium, Hungary have passed recent peaks of presumed Delta Variant. 

Rates are rising in France, Sweden, Israel, Italy, Portugal and Spain, but from a lower base.

In Portugal, Omicron is expected to be 80% of cases in the New Year, doubling the 5000 cases at present, despite having very high levels of vaccination. Portugal is also embarking on a vaccine programme for 5-11 year olds. Norway has imposed its strictest restrictions since the beginning of the pandemic, in response to the escalation of cases. This includes a ban on alcohol sales in bars and restaurants. Households are limited to 10 people and public gatherings less than 50. Denmark has also responded with stricter measures including the closure of public venues. This is in response to 11,194 cases on December 17th. The Netherlands is imposing a strict Christmas lockdown. The Netherlands has imposed new strict restrictions and restrictions are increasing in many European countries.

Norway’s swift action, alongside Finland, in March 2020 meant that they saved lives and were able to deal with the Wuhan and later strains effectively through responsive public health interventions; and they bought time for vaccine programmes to come in. As WHO leader Dr Tedros has said most recently ‘an event cancelled is better than a life cancelled’.

Great Barrington Declaration apologists have re-appeared out of the woodwork. Their ill-conceived assertions appeared before the ‘Kent’-Alpha variant of concern. They have proved to be utterly wrong, with Delta, and now Omicron, and with the disaster of the Manaus experience in Brazil; and consequently there have been 4.26 million extra deaths since their pronouncement on October 4th 2020; 1.224 million of those in Europe. And there is still â??â??no evidence of herd-community-immunity

Late or incomplete interventions further damage economies, with the main victims being those with the fewest resources who are also most at risk from COVID-19. There will once again be a social, economic, and health worsening in the European Region. Once again, the threat is obvious to economies from not dealing with the pandemic decisively. The German and French bans on UK business travellers and tourists are just examples of how the pandemic limits economic activity and why we need to control the virus.

European governments face difficult decisions. It is clear that Norway and Denmark, faced with the greatest onslaught of numbers have acted swiftly. The Netherlands also acted swiftly and numbers are already coming down. Whether the measures will be sufficient remain to be seen. The public health community in the UK remains deeply concerned and feels its expertise and knowledge are unappreciated. This renders the UK population unprotected and leaves the economy vulnerable when other countries rightly decide not to allow in business people and tourists from ‘plague island’. The English experiment with high rates of infection first Delta from July, now Omicron, has been a disaster of extraordinary proportions – with an Airbus A320 plane crash everyday, and 90000 infections yesterday….


Last week, WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said ‘vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis. Countries can – and must – prevent the spread of Omicron with measures that work today. It’s not vaccines instead of masks. It’s not vaccines instead of distancing. It’s not vaccines instead of ventilation or hand hygiene. Do it all. Do it consistently. Do it well.’ As the pandemic progresses, we are understanding the weaknesses of each of the interventions we have in the armoury to combat COVID-19. The Swiss Cheese model has been used to show the need to employ all the pandemic control measures available, so that where one failed, another would do the job. This mentality and policy stance has not been conveyed by our political leaders. Vigorous measures are needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic winter resurgence in Europe 2021/22 at international, regional and local levels, using all the evidence-based tools available; we need an integrated, COVID-DO-IT-ALL strategy.

A global approach to a global problem

And we need to constantly remind ourselves that the pandemic will not be over until it is over for everyone. That requires an extraordinary effort on vaccination and far more generosity of spirit from the rich world than we have seen so far. ASPHER has been campaigning with the Global Network for Academic Public Health and the World Federation of Public Health Associations, for a Vaccine Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Waiver. We have to grow the world’s capacity to produce vaccines, and deliver maybe every 6 months to everyone on the planet.

We also need to celebrate the extraordinary achievement of the South African scientists who We cannot expect the same early identification of new variants, for the benefit of the world, if countries where the scientists have done the work, and identify the next VOC, are instantly vilified and ostracised. We must act together a global community, scientific, political and general public. We really do have to be in this together.

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