Europe's healthcare systems are being strained once again by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus over the holiday period, with large numbers of key staff ill or self-isolating and experts predicting the peak of infections is yet to come.
Despite early studies showing a lower risk of severe disease or hospitalisation from Omicron compared to the previously-dominant Delta variant, healthcare networks across Spain, Britain, Italy and beyond have found themselves in increasingly desperate circumstances.
On Friday, Britain began deploying military personnel to support hospitals experiencing staff shortages and extreme pressures due to record COVID-19 cases in the country.
"Omicron means more patients to treat and fewer staff to treat them," National Health Service (NHS) Medical Director Professor Stephen Powis said in a statement.
In the United States, hospitals are postponing elective surgeries to free up staff and beds, while Spain's primary healthcare network is so strained that on the penultimate day of 2021 authorities in the northeastern region of Aragon authorised the reincorporation of retired medical workers and nurses.
"The exponential increase in cases means primary care can perform neither their contact tracing and vaccination campaign duties adequately, nor their ordinary activities," the authorities said in a statement.
Front-line workers such as nurses and physiotherapists are the hardest hit, Spanish nursing union SATSE said, citing the example of Andalusia where they accounted for more than 30% of staff on COVID-related leave in the second half of December.
The sunny southern region, where Britons and Germans have settled in droves, registered roughly 1,000 workers infected with the coronavirus in the final weeks of the year, "generating grave issues in service coverage", the statement said.