Virus resurgence in Europe triggers new restrictions amid vocal opposition

Governments across Europe are scrambling to slow the spread of omicron. In the Netherlands, a full lockdown has been ordered. In neighboring Germany, citizens are being told to cancel big New Years Eve parties. But authorities are often being met with pushback amid growing frustration over restrictions. Special correspondent Trent Murray reports from Berlin.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Governments across Europe are scrambling to slow the spread of Omicron in countries that were already suffering major winter surges.

    In the Netherlands, a full lockdown has been ordered, and, in neighboring Germany, citizens are being told to cancel big New Year's Eve parties.

    But, in many places, authorities are being met with growing pushback, as fatigue and frustration over restrictions take an increasing toll.

    From Berlin, special correspondent Trent Murray reports.

  • Trent Murray:

    Winter has come early across much of Northern Europe, a pre-Christmas cold snap giving the German capital its first dusting of snow.

    But while the temperatures are falling, concerns over COVID are once again rising. With a resurgence of the virus showing little sign of slowing down, the threat of even tighter restrictions looms large here, as lawmakers grapple with how to untangle Germany from this latest health crisis.

    Restrictions are unpopular amongst increasingly vocal groups across Europe, and anti-restriction protests are becoming more frequent, often in response to announcements about a renewal of pandemic-related rules.

    Often described as Germany's answer to America's Dr. Anthony Fauci, epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach has now been appointed health minister by new Chancellor Olaf Scholz. He's long been a vocal supporter of deploying tougher rules to fight the pandemic, and, with his new ministerial powers, has wasted little time putting those calls into action, pushing mandatory vaccination orders for medical workers through Parliament.

  • Dr. Karl Lauterbach, German Health Minister (through translator):

    At the end of the second year of this pandemic, it is in no way acceptable, it is in no way acceptable that people who have entrusted their care to staff are dying unnecessarily in institutions because unvaccinated people work there.

    We cannot accept this. We will end it with this law.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • Trent Murray:

    The partial mandate comes as the government prepares to introduce a much larger mandate next year, one that would require most of the population to get their shots.

    It's a controversial decision that has left many Germans uneasy.

    Jacob Kirkegaard is a senior analyst with the German Marshall Fund and says lawmakers are aware of the historical sensitivities of mandates, given some of the population's previous experience of state surveillance in the former communist East Germany.

  • Jacob Kirkegaard, German Marshall Fund:

    Not just about being vaccinated, having something stuck — a needle stuck in your shoulder, but telling the government that you're not vaccinated. There are obvious historical reasons for that.

  • Trent Murray:

    While check-in apps, medical masks and vaccine passports have become part of daily life for millions of Europeans, other less visible regulations are also having far-reaching consequences.

    Felipe Andre Lima is a Berlin-based music artist who makes a living performing around busy train stations. But with transit authorities no longer issuing music permits because of the pandemic, he says he now has to be careful about where he chooses to perform.

  • Felipe Andre Lima, Musician:

    Authorities, they come — sometimes, they come in a hard-core way, like really bad. Like, where are your papers and things?

    Sometimes, you play one eye looking to the people and the other eye looking if the police or something coming, you know?

  • Trent Murray:

    And he's not the only one adjusting to strict rules on public transport. New regulations require train and subway passengers to carry their COVID passes with them, indicating they have either been vaccinated, recently tested or previously infected.

    Berlin Metro Authority spokesperson Jannes Schwentu, says security staff are monitoring compliance.

  • Jannes Schwentu, Berlin Metro Authority:

    For a couple of weeks now, we have had daily big controls at certain stations where everybody who is leaving a train or entering on a train is being asked to provide their certificate.

  • Trent Murray:

    But some rights advocates argue the enforcement action is going too far, especially new regulations which force homeless people to provide a COVID pass if they are found to be sleeping inside subway stations.

  • Jannes Schwentu:

    We call for help. We give them advice on where they could get maybe a test or a vaccination. Some of them are vaccinated and tested. And I said we will not kick anybody out, especially not in weather like this.

  • Trent Murray:

    These difficult conversations about compliance concerns are now really happening right across Europe, as lawmakers grapple with striking a balance between convincing people to do the right thing and compelling them through enforcement orders.

    But even in places where authorities have been more bullish in lifting restrictions sooner, the arrival of the Omicron variant is now causing a rethink.

    Having abolished most COVID restrictions over the summer in a move dubbed Freedom Day, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now backtracked, implementing his Plan B, which includes work-from-home directives and the limited use of vaccine passports.

    But having given people a taste of so-called freedom, he is now facing some public pushback. Conservative M.P. William Wragg chairs Parliament's powerful Constitutional Affairs Committee. He's now broken ranks to voice concerns over the backflip.

  • William Wragg, British Parliament Member:

    From my perspective, the government's main challenge is to wait and see slightly how this situation evolves before overreacting to it.

  • Trent Murray:

    Across Europe, health experts continue to plead for more patience, both from politicians and the public. They say that if the hospital system can just withstand an expected winter surge, the new year should bring with it more medical countermeasures to support the fight against COVID-19, including antiviral medication and a variety of new vaccines.

    But, in the meantime, the yo-yo effect of on-again/off-again social restrictions looks likely to remain, as authorities try to remind people that the pandemic is far from over, a message they hope isn't lost on a lockdown-weary public.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Trent Murray in Berlin.

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