Travel plans are in doubt for up to 100,000 Britons in the run-up to Christmas as Covid restrictions return to many parts of Europe after a surge in cases.
Austria has become the first country in western Europe to reimpose a full Covid lockdown, with Germany considering following suit amid a “dramatic” fourth wave that has hit the nation “with full force”, according to the outgoing chancellor, Angela Merkel.
In the Netherlands, health officials reported a record 23,000 new cases on Thursday – nearly double the peak of 13,000 reached in December 2020. The country entered a three-week partial lockdown last week, closing bars, restaurants and essential shops from 8pm.
In a normal year, around 250,000 British travellers would be expected to travel to one of the three countries during or before Christmas.
But with Austria in lockdown, Germany on the precipice and the Netherlands under partial restrictions, and with an increasingly precarious situation in Eastern Europe, where vaccination rates are far lower than in the west, many are looking to abandon or reschedule their plans.
Munich’s Christmas market is one of many that has been has been cancelled again this year, while the winter ski season is also under threat.
The head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany’s disease control, said on Friday that the country is heading for a “very bad Christmas season” if action is not taken to control the rapidly escalating spread of Covid-19.
To avoid following Europe into lockdown, Britain must continue to push forward with its vaccine programme while the government needs to consider reintroducing wearing face coverings, scientists have said.
Austria, Germany and the Netherlands are between 64 and 73 per cent fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data. Britain’s coverage stands at 68 per cent.
The UK is banking on its vaccination programme, including the rollout of boosters, to offset waning protection from the first jabs and help keep society open for the winter. Downing Street remains insistent that there is nothing in the data that points to a need to reimpose restrictions.
Professor David Matthews, a virologist at the University of Bristol, said the situation in Europe reiterated the “need for us to keep talking to adults who, for whatever reason, have decided to not have the vaccine here in the UK”.
“Vaccination is easily the most effective way out of the pandemic and absolutely the best way avoid any more lockdowns.”
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, cautioned that while the “vaccines do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to keeping Covid-19 under control”, while “other interventions are required to prevent case numbers rising”, pointing to the example of mandatory mask wearing.
“These are minor inconveniences that could really help us through the winter months alongside the continued rollout of booster vaccinations,” he added.
The warnings come as a new YouGov survey suggested that vaccine passport mandates have wide support across Europe. The annual YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project shows that a majority of people surveyed in 10 European countries back the passes for large events; more people also believe they should be implemented in cafes, restaurants and gyms.
Austria, where police have been conducting vaccine pass spot-checks, announced on Friday that Covid jabs would become mandatory from February.
Dr Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, said: “Different countries need to react as needed according to how the virus is behaving in their populations.”
He added: “The virus-infection dynamics will differ between countries as they have different cultures, healthcare systems, levels of natural or vaccine immunity – as well as different levels of concern and practices related to social distancing, PPE, masking – and also their diagnostic testing, and test, track, isolation, quarantine capacities.”
According to figures from Our World in Data, the EU’s average infection rate has quadrupled in recent weeks, from just over 110 daily new cases per million people on 1 October to 446 on Thursday.
In the Netherlands, hospitals have begun delaying operations for some cancer and heart patients to free up space in intensive care units for those ill with Covid.
Germany, meanwhile, has said further measures will be decided based on when hospitalisation rates hit certain thresholds. Its fourth wave of infections has plunged the country into a national emergency, the health minister, Jens Spahn, said, warning that vaccinations alone will not cut case numbers.
Asked if Germany could rule out an Austrian-style full lockdown, Mr Spahn said: “We are now in a situation – even if this produces a news alert – where we can’t rule anything out.”
In France, the president, Emmanuel Macron, has made it clear he thinks high levels of vaccinations should be enough to avoid future lockdowns.
The UK government, for now, is refusing to budge from its current Covid strategy and has yet to rule out travel to the continent. Some 44,242 cases and 157 deaths were reported nationwide on Friday.
Addressing the prospect of whether people should be warned against visiting Covid hotspots in Europe, a spokesperson for the prime minister said: “The most important thing people can do is to come forward and receive a vaccination if they haven’t already. Or to get a third dose if they are eligible for the booster, and we will continue to promote that up and down the country.
“Our plan is as set out in the autumn/winter plan. Nothing has changed since we published that document.”