Russia delays curbs, Iceland rules tighten

Moscow metro passengers
Russian health authorities have registered 23,820 new coronavirus infections within 24 hours. -EPA

Iceland is introducing new pandemic curbs and the Russian government says it will hold off on rules restricting unvaccinated peoples' access to public places amid indications the Omicron variant wave may have peaked in some parts of Europe.

Iceland's government is putting new limits on gatherings and forcing some businesses to shut as it grapples with a worsening coronavirus surge.

The health system is so burdened at the moment that there is no other choice but to stiffen rules on public life, Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir said on Friday.

A previous exception that permitted large events to be held so long as all the participants had taken a rapid antigen test has been ended.

Entertainment venues and pubs were ordered shut, although restaurants can remain open until 10pm.

In recent weeks caps have also been imposed on how many people can be in shops and fitness venues.

The restrictions are set to last until February 2.

Iceland, an island of about 360,000 people, is facing record high numbers of new cases. 

Almost 10,000 people are in isolation after being infected and more than 11,000 others are in quarantine.

Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said the unpopular legislation targeting the unvaccinated was postponed due to the "high uncertainty" as the draft bill was originally prepared in response to the Delta variant but "new challenges" have arisen.

The bill required Russians willing to access certain public places to have a QR code either confirming vaccination, recent recovery from COVID-19 or a medical exemption from immunisation.

The initiative, along with another bill proposing a similar system for both domestic and international planes and trains, was met with high resistance amid a largely vaccine-sceptical population. 

The transport bill was withdrawn from parliament last month but the one on public places passed the first reading.

Golikova said the bill will be amended to allow Russians with negative tests to get short-term QR codes.

Russia on Friday reported 23,820 new coronavirus infections, a 12 per cent increase from the previous day, and 739 deaths. 

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the Omicron variant is responsible for nearly half of all new infections in the capital as daily cases are expected to rise to 7000 on Saturday.

A surge in coronavirus cases caused by the Omicron variant may have peaked in some parts of Europe but medics say the impact will continue to be felt across the region, with hospitals still at risk of facing a rush of admissions

Health experts and politicians warn against complacency, saying it is not yet clear whether their data reflect the full impact of the Christmas and New Year holidays, when families gathered for long periods indoors and the risk of intergenerational spread of the virus may be greater.

Also, although vaccination and the lesser severity of the Omicron variant mean hospitalisations are lower than in previous waves of COVID-19 infections, Europe still accounts for about half of global cases and deaths.

But there are growing signs that the surge of infections caused by the Omicron variant, first identified in southern Africa and Hong Kong, is levelling off or even falling in some areas.

Britain's seven-day average of cases has fallen by 30,000 from its peak, Spain's prime minister has said infection numbers are stabilising and a French public health institute has said the wave will peak in mid-January.

"We see a number of places where the peak is being reached or has been reached. It may be a bit earlier than anticipated but remember the region is very diverse," Hans Kluge, the World Health Organisation's Europe director, said this week.

Health officials in Sweden and Switzerland have said the peak in those two countries is projected to be reached towards the end of this month.

The trend echoes the Omicron wave in Africa, which the WHO's Africa office said appeared to be plateauing, making it the shortest surge in cases to date.

Denmark, where cases are dominated by Omicron, eased some restrictions this week as the health minister said the epidemic in the country was now under control.

with reporting from DPA and Reuters