At start of new year, Covid tops agenda - again
The start of the new year brought familiar challenges for the Greek government as Covid dominated the political agenda throughout the week, during which the spread of the Omicron variant led to the number of new infections passing the 50,000 mark to set a new daily record.
Apart from the surge in cases caused by the new variant, fuelling concern about the capability of the beleaguered Greek health system to withstand further pressure, New Democracy and its rivals were at loggerheads over the past few days over the start of the latest school term.
In his New Year’s address, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis sought to strike an upbeat message. He argued that although the pandemic remains a threat, during 2021 roughly 80 pct of the adult population in Greece was vaccinated with jabs that only started arriving in the country a year ago.
According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), based on the general population 83.6 pct of Greeks over 60 are fully vaccinated and 63.6 pct have received their booster shot. Just 13.6 pct of under-18s are vaccinated. By comparison, the EU average for full vaccination among over-60s is almost 90 pct, while 60 pct have had a third dose. Almost 18 pct of teenagers are vaccinated in the EU.
Speaking on Thursday from the island of Aghios Eftsratios, Mitsotakis said that 86 pct of intubated patients in Greece are unvaccinated. There were 639 intubated patients on Thursday, slightly below the levels seen in December. But Mitsotakis also said that all of them had been infected by the Delta variant so the full impact of Omicron may not be visible yet.
In his New Year’s Day speech, Mitsotakis called on Greeks to turn their back on disaster-mongering and defeatism and to only listen to “science and the truth.” The message seemed designed to address the anti-vaxxer movement that has flourished in Greece over the past few months, but also the incessant criticism from New Democracy’s political rivals, particularly SYRIZA.
In his address, opposition leader Alexis Tsipras focussed on the “insecurity and uncertainty” facing Greek households. He accused the government of flip-flopping in terms of its Covid policy, of creating a false sense of success in defeating the pandemic and of intentionally failing to bolster the health service. Perhaps with one eye on possible snap polls in 2022, Tsipras called for it to be a “year of big change.”
The start of the new year has also revived speculation about whether Mitsotakis might opt to call elections this year rather than wait until the end of his four-year term in 2023. The government’s recent difficulties in managing the pandemic combined with its falling poll ratings and the sudden jump in support for third party KINAL after the election of its new leader, Nikos Androulakis, have made the option of snap polls appear less likely.
This could change if the pandemic subsides and inflation worries fade, allowing the political focus to shift to issues that are more favourable for New Democracy, such as investment and economic growth, particularly within the context of the launch of projects funded by the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility. Mitsotakis ended his New Year’s address by saying that his government would be focussing on a “Growth for All” strategy in 2022.
One of the first obstacles the government will have to navigate in 2022 is the reopening of schools following the Christmas holidays. Education Minister Niki Kerameus announced on Tuesday that schools would reopen on schedule on January 10, but pupils will be required to carry out three self-tests a week and that classes would shut down if more than half the students contract the virus.
The government believes that since Omicron has now become the dominant variant in Greece, the number of patients that need to be intubated will fall.
Officials also believe it is safer for public health for children to be in a more controlled school environment rather than mixing socially if the Christmas holiday is extended. Kerameus also stressed the importance of in-person, rather than remote, learning for children.
SYRIZA, though, accused the government of putting children and teachers at risk by reopening schools without any further precautions. The opposition party argued that infection rates among teenagers are already spiralling out of control and opening schools based on the latest protocols will simply turn them into super-spreading hubs.
Shadow education minister Nikos Fylis noted that SYRIZA made 10 proposals regarding the start of the new term, which included scrapping the 50+1 pct rule for something more stringent and breaking up classes to limit the number of students, but that none of these were adopted.
New Democracy appears confident that the measures it has set out, and the apparently milder impact of Omicron on people’s health, will help it ride out the coming weeks as far as infections among schoolchildren are concerned. However, the ruling conservatives could run into complications if schoolchildren bring the virus into households, especially those where the main care is provided by the elderly, or unvaccinated pupils contract the virus and suffer more serious symptoms than those expected.
Another challenge that the centre-right administration is painfully aware of is the political threat posed by inflation, including soaring energy prices. Despite a recent dip, Greece has registered the highest prices for wholesale electricity in Europe since the start of the year, paying 195 euros per MWh compared to 152 in Serbia and 76 in Germany. With high electricity and natural gas prices set to persist over the winter, the task facing the Energy Ministry is to design a targeted package that satisfies EU state aid rules.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis chaired a crisis meeting on New Year’s Eve focussed solely on the issue of reducing the impact of high energy bills. The government is hoping to finance the package out of the Energy Transition Fund, which was initiated in 2021 to tackle high energy prices. The fund is created out of the proceeds of the auctioning of carbon emission permits, which are expected to fetch in the region of 1.5 billion euros in the coming year.