Omicron wave hangs over New Year celebrations

A record wave of Covid-19 infections propelled by the spread of the contagious Omicron variant has cast a cloud over New Year’s celebrations around the world, with partygoers urged to exercise caution in the face of soaring cases.

Despite hopes that 2021 would mark a return to normalcy after the pandemic shut down many celebrations last New Year’s Eve, many cities and countries either cancelled or scaled back planned festivities, while urging residents to limit the size of their gatherings.

London cancelled its New Year’s eve fireworks display, but New York City’s Times Square celebration will proceed even as infection rates in the city soar to record highs. Still, only 15,000 people will be allowed to attend the ball drop event, which typically attracts nearly 60,000 from all over the world.

Pope Francis arrives to celebrate a New Year’s Eve vespers Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Friday © AP

Guests must be vaccinated and wear masks to attend the outdoor event, though public health experts have questioned whether the event should go ahead at all. The event was closed to crowds in 2020.

Eric Adams will be sworn in as the city’s new mayor at the Times Square celebration shortly after the ball drops, after cancelling his indoor inauguration party in Brooklyn due to the surge of cases.

In New York state, the Covid-19 infection rate is more than twice the national average, with over 230 cases per 100,000, the highest since the start of the pandemic, according to an FT analysis of data.
Lines stretching several city blocks have become a common sight outside of testing centres.

Experts have cautioned against large gatherings, as the seven-day average of new cases in the US soared to nearly 350,000, its highest ever. San Francisco cancelled its fireworks, while Atlanta, Georgia, called off its annual “Peach Drop”.

Revellers celebrate the new year in front of Flinders Street Station during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Melbourne, Australia. © Getty Images

At a White House press briefing on Wednesday, Dr Anthony Fauci, Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said that for those planning to attend large gatherings with “everybody hugging and kissing and wishing each other Happy New Year — I would strongly recommend that, this year, we do not do that.”

The New Year’s celebrations around the world began in muted fashion. Australia went ahead with its traditional fireworks display over Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, but the crowds were much smaller than usual after the country’s health authorities reporting a record 32,000 new Covid cases, the majority of them in New South Wales.

Meanwhile, New Zealand, which has not reported any local spread of Omicron, did away with its usual fireworks display in Auckland in favour of a smaller light show.

Students hold candles during a rally to pray for peace in year 2022 on New Year’s Eve in Lahore, Pakistan © RAHAT DAR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In Germany, Olaf Scholz used his first New Year’s address as chancellor to push an ambitious drive to deliver 30m doses of Covid-19 booster shots by the end of January, as the country braced itself for an upsurge in cases of the Omicron variant.

Germany has introduced tight new contact restrictions to combat the spread of Omicron, putting a limit on the number of people who can attend social gatherings. “Tonight we will once again have to do without big New Year’s Eve parties or grand fireworks,” Scholz said.

In South Africa, which is officially past the peak of its fourth Omicron-driven wave after avoiding a significant increase in deaths, “better times are on the horizon” in 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a televised New Year’s Eve address on Friday.

A runner dressed in a custom-made coronavirus hat awaits the start of the Sao Silvestre international race in São Paulo, Brazil, Friday. The race, which was cancelled last year because of Covid, was closed to spectators © AP

South Africans will be able to stay out after midnight to celebrate this New Year’s Eve for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, after Ramaphosa’s government ended a nightly curfew that had been one of the country’s last remaining major lockdown restrictions. On the night the curfew was lifted, restaurant managers rushed to tell the patrons the news, and bars celebrated in Cape Town.

South Africa endured a heavy death toll from past waves in 2021 and “millions of families are struggling to put food on the table” in Africa’s most industrial economy, Ramaphosa said.

But “we are thankful for the nearly 18m South Africans who have been vaccinated against Covid-19” and for scientists “who are helping us to better understand the pandemic, to plan and respond accordingly,” he added. South African scientists were among the first in the world to discover the Omicron variant.

Reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin, Joseph Cotterill in Johannesburg, and Madison Darbyshire and Imani Moise in New York

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