Countries around the world welcomed in an uncertain new year amid economic woes, fears of new Covid variations arising in China, and the political backdrop of conflict in Ukraine. Many cities were hosting firework displays and large public gatherings free of restrictions for the first time since the pandemic.
Large crowds in the UK braved cold temperatures, as more than 100,000 people were estimated to have gathered on the Embankment of the River Thames in London for the display at midnight, despite blustery showers.
The fireworks and light show referenced the late Queen Elizabeth II’s death with ER, the initials of the Royal Cypher of Queen Elizabeth II, illuminated by drones along with a portrait of Her Majesty’s on a coin changing to an outline of King Charles III. The conflict in Ukraine, the England women’s football team winning the European championship and Pride’s 50th anniversary were also referenced in the show.
It was an altogether different story in Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities, where an 11pm curfew had already precluded large parties, before a series of air raid alerts and reported explosions from Russian attacks disturbed the first few hours of 2023. Earlier in the evening Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, gave a TV address in which he declared: “They said our only choice is surrender. We answered our only choice was to fight on!”
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, devoted his new year address to rallying the Russian people behind his troops fighting in Ukraine. Festivities in Moscow were muted, without the usual fireworks on Red Square.
Elsewhere, Australia marked its first restriction-free New Year’s Eve after two years of Covid disruptions, with more than a million revelers watching the traditional fireworks display in Sydney’s harbor.
Lockdowns at the end of 2020 and a surge in Omicron cases at the end of 2021 led to crowd restrictions and reduced festivities.
A rainbow of color lit up Sydney harbor with 2,000 fireworks launched from the four sails of the Sydney Opera House and 7,000 fireworks from more positions on the Sydney Harbor Bridge than ever before.
In Edinburgh, thousands of people attended the traditional Hogmanay celebrations which included a concert in Princes Street Gardens headlined by Pet Shop Boys, and DJ sets at the annual street party.
Fireworks went off every hour between 9pm and 11pm, counting down to the traditional midnight display.
In Manchester, celebrations went ahead at Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens without fireworks due to budget pressures.
Scarborough also had to forgo fireworks, after an Arctic walrus nicknamed ‘Thor’ became a celebrity on New Year’s Eve after being discovered in the harbor. The local council decided to postpone the fireworks display in order to avoid disturbing the creature, as the giant mammal drew huge crowds to the seaside resort in what is believed to be the first sighting of a walrus in Yorkshire. The animal is believed to be the same walrus spotted on the Hampshire coastline earlier this month.
In China, thousands gathered in central Wuhan to count down to the beginning of what many hoped would be a much better year after a “tough” 2022 filled with lockdowns and, in December, a major new outbreak of Covid. Many released balloons into the sky when clocks struck midnight, as per tradition in the central Chinese city where the pandemic began three years ago, before grabbing selfies with their friends.
“In the past year, I feel that Covid-19 was very serious and some of my family members have been hospitalized,” a 17-year-old Wuhan high school student, surnamed Wang, said from the riverside shortly after midnight. “I hope they will be healthy in the new year. This is the most important thing.”
Some came in fancy dress and almost everyone present wore masks as the country sees a wave of Covid which accelerated after curbs were dropped and which has since infected large swathes of the population, with deaths now reaching an estimated 9,000 a day, according to UK- based health data firm Airfinity.
“I am afraid,” said a woman surnamed Jin, referring to the possibility of being reinfected with Covid. “I was still afraid when I came out tonight, but I just wanted to come out, because everyone has come out.”
A Wuhan resident surnamed Chen, 24, who works in e-commerce, said: “It had been a long time since things were lively and vibrant.”
Police used loudspeakers at a number of locations, blasting out a short message on a loop telling people not to gather, to which people appeared to take little or no notice.
In Shanghai, which like many Chinese cities in 2022 was put under a long lockdown, many thronged the historic riverside walkway, the Bund.
“We’ve all traveled in from Chengdu to celebrate in Shanghai,” said Da Dai, a 28-year-old digital media executive who was traveling with two friends. “We’ve already had Covid, so now feel it’s safe to enjoy ourselves.”
In France, Paris staged its first new year fireworks since 2019 with a 10-minute show, estimated to have been watched by 500,000 people who had converged on the Champs-Élysées.
But the Czech capital, Prague, was among those feeling the pinch economically and did not hold a display.
“Holding celebrations did not seem appropriate,” said city hall spokesperson Vit Hofman, citing “the unfavorable economic situation of many Prague households” and the need for the city to save money. Heavy rain and high winds meant firework shows in the Netherlands’ main cities were cancelled.
Berlin welcomed the new year with fireworks over the Brandenburg Gate while Athens had a display over the ancient Parthenon temple on top of the Acropolis hill.
Over in New York, people started to gather at about 6pm local time in Times Square ahead of celebrations without restrictions. Last year, Covid restrictions meant only 15,000 of the usual 60,000 spectators attended Times Square to watch the traditional dropping of a six-tonne ball encrusted with nearly 2,700 Waterford crystals.
Reuters contributed to this report