Even before the Omicron COVID-19 variant emerged, there were signs throughout Europe that a new wave of infection had taken hold, with both the numbers of those infected and those hospitalised reaching new highs.

New restrictions are now being imposed, in particular on those who have not been vaccinated. This is controversial from a freedom-of-choice point of view but understandable from those who view the situation through the lens of public health: ICUs are getting overwhelmed and the wider health service in several countries is being compromised as a result.

With this new variant seemingly more virulent, and able to more easily bypass the immunity of those vaccinated or previously infected, have things changed literally overnight? Should we be preparing ourselves for a new cycle of social restrictions?

This analysis is hampered by the fact that the data regarding the Omicron variant is still rather patchy and scant. It appears Omicron is about 40 per cent more likely to infect people who have been vaccinated or previously infected than the other variants of COVID, including the still dominant Delta.

What has not emerged so far is a pattern of more serious infections and a disproportionate number of hospital admissions caused by the new variant. This gives reason for hope, although things may change. We can only wait and see as Omicron spreads wider among the world’s population.

The seriousness of the massive spikes in infection, hospitalisations and deaths occurring in other countries as well as the degree of strain placed on national health services can be directly linked to one thing: the proportion of the population who have not been fully vaccinated.

Here in Malta, we are experiencing a significant increase in the number of cases. So far, though, this has not been reflected in a proportionate rise in the number of people needing hospital care. Medical services for other illnesses have not had to be curtailed in order to redistribute limited resources.

The only explanation for this is the very large number of residents who are vaccinated, over 90 per cent. This is in contrast with many of our European partners where vaccination rates hover around 65 per cent or less.

One thing COVID-19 has taught us, though, is that nothing can be taken for granted. The failure to take any new threat seriously for the sake of short-term financial gain would end up biting us back both economically and in terms of public health.

COVID fatigue has led to many becoming less vigilant and less careful and also less aware of just how important the vaccine is. The jury is out on whether we need to re-introduce new restrictions. It is, however, imperative that the few we have left are strictly adhered to. Over the last few weeks, we have witnessed dozens of occasions where the rules have been blatantly ignored: the recent gaming congress; every night in St Julian’s and Paceville.

The rules we do have must be enforced while people should take the booster jab as soon as it becomes available to them. If these things don’t happen, we may see the number of seriously ill and deaths increase as immunity from the vaccine wanes. Thankfully, booster take-up is looking healthy so far.

We cannot directly control the emergence of new strains of COVID-19. That can only be done if the world community pushes vaccination equitably and evenly throughout every country.

What we can control is how badly those strains affect us as a community by learning from previous mistakes, ignoring personal interests and working for the common good.

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