The World Health Organization (WHO) is “very concerned” about the spread of Covid-19 in Europe as the continent grapples with a new wave of infections.
In an interview with the BBC, Regional Director Dr. Hans Kluge that there could be around 500,000 deaths by March if urgent action is not taken.
Dr. Kluge said introducing measures like wearing masks could help immediately.
The warning comes as several nations report record infection rates and introduce full and partial bans.
Dr. Kluge said factors such as the winter season, inadequate vaccination coverage, and the regional dominance of the more highly transmissible delta variant were responsible for the spread. He called for increased vaccine intake and the implementation of basic public health measures and new medical treatments to combat the surge.
“Covid-19 has once again become the number one killer in our region,” he told the BBC, adding, “We know what to do” to fight the disease.
Dr. Kluge said mandatory vaccination should be seen as a “last resort” but it is “very timely” to have a “legal and societal debate” on the issue.
“Before that there are other means like the Covid Pass,” he said, adding that this “is not a restriction of freedom, but an instrument to preserve our individual freedom”.
On Friday, Austria became the first European country to announce that the Covid-19 vaccination would be required by law. The new rules are due to come into force in February.
The announcement, along with a new national lockdown, came in response to record numbers and low vaccination rates.
Many other European countries also impose new measures as cases increase.
Countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia have also announced new restrictions on the unvaccinated as record infection rates are recorded across the continent.
Overnight there were violent riots in Rotterdam in the Netherlands over new Covid-19 measures. Hundreds of protesters had gathered to show their anger over the government’s plans for further restrictions and a ban on fireworks on New Year’s Eve.
Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn described the situation there as a “national emergency” and refused to rule out another national lockdown.
The UK recorded 44,242 new coronavirus cases on Friday.
The government has stated time and time again that it has no plans for another lockdown, but it said it could introduce additional Covid measures to protect the NHS – known as Plan B – in England, including mandatory Covid passes for some indoor – Venues and, in certain cases, mandatory face coverings include indoor settings and advice on working from home.