Europe is at a "tipping point" in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.
According to Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO's regional director for Europe, one year on from the WHO's first report about COVID-19, cases are surging throughout Europe.
He said that science, politics, technology and values must now "form a united front, in order to push back this persistent and elusive virus".
Over 26 million COVID-19 cases, and over 580,000 deaths, were confirmed in the WHO European region in 2020. Currently, over 230 million people in the European region are living in countries under full national lockdown, with more countries set to announce lockdown measures in the coming week.
"Transmission across the region has sustained at very high rates of infection. As of January 6, among all countries and territories in Europe, almost half have a seven-day incidence of over 150 new cases per 100,000 population, and one-quarter are seeing a greater than 10% increase in case incidence over the past two-week period," Dr Kluge noted.
He said that over one-quarter of all European member states and territories are experiencing "very high incidence and strained health systems".
"Where there are signs of stabilisation or even decreased incidence in some countries, this needs to be taken with some caution. The impact of the holiday period, of gatherings of families, communities, and any relaxation of physical distancing and mask-wearing behaviour for example, cannot yet be determined.
"Testing and notification activities may have also been lower during the festive season, resulting in an incomplete picture of the current epidemiological situation," he pointed out.
Dr Kluge said that while 2021 brings with it new tools, such as the vaccine, there are also new challenges to be faced. He referred specifically to the new variant of the virus, which appears to spread much quicker, noting that 22 countries in the WHO European region have already detected it.
"This variant is 'of concern' as it has increased transmissibility. So far, we understand there is no significant change to the disease this variant produces, meaning the COVID-19 is not more, nor less, severe. It spreads across all age groups, and children do not appear to be at higher-risk. It is our assessment that this variant of concern may, over time, replace other circulating lineages as seen in the UK, and increasingly in Denmark," he explained.
He said that without further controls to slow its spread, there will be an "increased impact on already stressed and pressurised health facilities".
"This is an alarming situation, which means that for a short period of time, we need to do more than we have done and to intensify the public health and social measures, to be certain we can flatten the steep vertical line in some countries, which may not have been seen to date.
"It's the basic measures, with which we are all familiar, that need to be intensified to bring down transmission, lift the strain on our COVID-19 wards, and save lives," Dr Kluge said.
He reminded people to wear face masks, limit contacts, ensure physical distancing and hand wash regularly.
"This, coupled with adequate testing and tracing systems, proper support for quarantine and isolation, and increasingly vaccination, will work if we all get involved," he insisted.
Dr Kluge said that given the limited supply of vaccines available worldwide, and the increasing burden on our health systems, "prioritisation of vaccination of our health workforce and the most at-risk in our communities is vital".
However success will depend on society working together.
"Be it vaccine allocation and prioritisation, access to medical supplies and tests, public health measures and policies to control the pandemic, we have a responsibility to base decisions on the core values that are at the heart of humanity: solidarity, equity and social justice. It is the only way out of these uncertain times because no one is safe until everyone is safe," he added.
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