Dr Hans Kluge, regional director of the WHO, warned that half a million more people may die from the virus by March if countries continue with “business as usual”.
He said the winter season, along with the dominance of the more transmissible Delta variant, had raised the threat level, added to the fact that too many people are susceptible to the virus through being unvaccinated or having lost protection as a result of the length of time since their last jab.
He said the virus was killing one person every 15-20 minutes on average in the WHO European region, which covers the whole continent and includes some central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
“Covid-19 has become once again the number one cause of mortality in our region,” he told the BBC.
Dr Kluge said the spread could be tackled by measures including mask-wearing, which could be done immediately, and increasing vaccine uptake.
Countries should make sure there are no “access barriers” to vaccination, he said.
Asked whether he thought countries should enforce mandatory vaccination, after Austria announced it would do so from February next year, he said such a measure would be “something of a last resort”.
But he said the public attitude was “evolving” and that it would be “timely” to have a public debate about such a measure.
The Covid pass could be useful in slowing the spread, said Dr Kluge, adding that it was “not a restriction of liberty, rather it is a tool to keep our individual freedom”.
The virus has seen a resurgence in Europe in recent weeks, leading some countries to bring back restrictions that had been lifted months ago. The WHO declared earlier this month that Europe was again at the centre of the pandemic.
In some eastern European countries where vaccine take-up is low, driving virus deaths, new restrictions are being placed on the unvaccinated.
The Czech Republic has imposed an effective lockdown on unvaccinated people, while Slovakia has banned them from public gatherings and non-essential shops.
Austria – which is reporting five times as many daily cases as it was last month – yesterday reimposed a full lockdown, and Germany is considering following suit.
A partial lockdown and plans for further restrictions in the Netherlands were met with violent rioting on Friday in Rotterdam.
In the UK, where infections remain high but have not spiked, the government is resisting the reintroduction of measures and has not ruled out travel to the rest of Europe.
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