The Omicron variant is “spreading at lightning speed” in Europe and will likely become dominant in France by the start of next year, French Prime Minister Jean Castex has warned.
He spoke on Friday, hours before France imposed strict travel restrictions on those entering from the United Kingdom.
The UK has so far been the hardest hit in the region, with nearly 15,000 confirmed Omicron cases on Friday.
Across the continent, health officials are bracing for a wave of infections.
Additional restrictions were announced in Germany, the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands on Friday as governments seek to stem the tide.
Europe has already seen more than 89 million case and 1.5 million Covid-related deaths, according to the latest EU figures.
But Germany’s Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told reporters on Friday the country “must prepare for a challenge that we have not yet had in this form”, while its public health agency designated France, Norway and Denmark as high risk due to rising infections in those countries. Germany itself reported more than 42,000 cases on Saturday, down from 50,000 new infections recorded on Friday.
In Ireland, where a third of new cases have been due to the new variant, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said they were expecting “to see infections at a rate that is far in excess of anything we have seen to date”.
The warnings came as the UK reported a record number of Covid infections for a third day in a row – more than 93,000 – largely driven by Omicron.
France closed its borders to people travelling from the UK for business or tourism at 23:00 GMT on Friday, with huge queues forming at the Port of Dover and Eurostar terminals as people tried to enter before the ban came into effect.
It is not the only country tightening its controls. Earlier this week, Italy, Greece and Portugal announced that visitors from the EU will need to present a negative test result on arrival – even those who have been vaccinated.
Speaking hours before the new rules came in, Mr Castex said the travel restrictions were part of a series of measures being brought in to stem the tide of infections.
They include shortening the gap between the second and third dose of vaccine, and requiring a full vaccination to enter restaurants and long-distance public transport.
Additionally, all official New Years Eve celebrations and firework displays have been cancelled.
Mr Castex also said the government would announce new steps to tackle vaccine hesitancy next year, saying it was “not acceptable that the refusal of a few million French people to be vaccinated puts the life of an entire country at risk”.