LONDON — In Britain, France, Spain and other countries across Europe, politicians and some public health experts are pushing for a new approach to the coronavirus pandemic, borne of both boldness and resignation: that the disease is a regular part of becomes everyday life.
Governments are seizing a moment when their populations have experienced less severe illness and, in some cases, a drop in new daily cases after weeks of record growth. And they’re moving their mitigation policies from emergency response.
In Spain, for example, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez last week declared that citizens “should learn to live with it, as we do with many other viruses”, and said the country should adapt its national approach to better align with the way it is handled. it treats flu outbreaks. Olivier Véran, France’s health minister, recently said the high infection rate and high vaccination coverage in France “might mean” that this would be the last wave.
The shift comes even as the World Health Organization warned this week not to treat the virus as the seasonal flu, saying it was too early to make that call. Much about the disease remains unknown, the WHO said. And an increase in cases caused by the Omicron variant continues to plague the continent, while the populations of much of the world remain vulnerable due to a lack of widespread vaccination, and more variants are likely to emerge.
Still, proponents of the “learn to live with it” approach point out that the latest increase in cases differs from the early days of the virus in several important ways, including a largely vaccinated population in parts of Europe, especially in the West, and a much lower number of hospital admissions.
The sentiment is evident in the evolving policies the UK government has adopted since early this year, a stark departure from the “war base” the country’s health service preached in December.
The changes include shorter isolation periods and the elimination of pre-departure testing for people traveling to England – largely because Omicron was already so widespread that the tests had limited effect on its spread.
There are some concrete signs that Britain may be turning a corner. 99,652 new cases were reported on Friday, a notable drop from the 178,250 cases reported on the same day last week.
“It can’t be an emergency forever,” Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told BBC Radio 4 this week, adding that the end of the pandemic is likely. will take place in stages rather than appearing as “an active moment” that can be declared over.
Amid this shift, coverage to the public has varied, often in confusing ways. The guidance could be anywhere on the map, with some politicians declaring the latest wave over and others advocating a gradual return to normalcy – all while many experts are wary of all the unknowns and the potential for new variants.
Peter English, a retired communicable disease control consultant, said for many public health experts and scientists in Britain the debate had shifted from lockdowns to sanity-limiting measures. Most are now encouraging measures such as mandatory masking in public facilities and legislation on ventilation standards.
“There had been a fight about zero Covid and trying to eliminate the virus through restrictions,” he said. “I think we’ve lost that argument. I think it’s going to be very, very difficult to get the genie back in the bottle by letting it spread like that.”
From that perspective, he said, “we’re going to have to live with it being endemic.” But, he added, “Endemic doesn’t mean not serious,” and urged caution against the idea of simply “learning to live with it” without restrictive measures.
One of the biggest concerns in England is the intense pressure the virus is putting on the National Health Service or NHS.
Matthew Taylor, the head of the NHS Confederation, a membership organization for the heads of hospitals, said on Wednesday that “unless things change unexpectedly, we are close to the national peak of Covid patients in hospital.”
In Spain, a new monitoring system is being created that will come into effect once the current increase in the number of cases subsides, and the country has also recently relaxed its isolation rules. But Madrid’s push to treat Omicron more like the flu has been criticized by some doctors and professional associations, as well as the European Medicines Agency, who say the virus is still behaving like a pandemic.
In France, infections are still rising, with nearly 300,000 newly reported coronavirus cases per day this week, nearly six times as much as a month ago. But President Emmanuel Macron, who faces presidential elections in April, has chosen to maintain minimal restrictions and has instead focused on urging the French to get vaccinated.
Macron’s government has dismissed allegations that it has given up on cutting the number of cases, including in schools, which suffered widespread strikes on Thursday by teachers concerned about classroom safety.
Mr Véran, France’s health minister, who tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday, said authorities are closely monitoring data from Britain to determine whether France was nearing its own peak.
Germany is several weeks behind some of its European neighbors in dealing with a rise in infections. It reported 80,430 new cases on Tuesday, breaking a November record. But independent scientific experts have advised the government to impose new restrictions, despite widespread agreement that the number of infections would continue to rise.
Christian Drosten, the country’s most famous virologist, noted that Germany should most likely eventually have to start treating the virus as endemic.
“Let’s put it this way: we shouldn’t open the gate all the way,” he said in a podcast interview last week. “But in some areas we need to open the door to the virus a little bit.”
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Italy is also struggling with some of the highest daily infection rates since the start of the pandemic. But in recent weeks it has tightened restrictions, making vaccines mandatory for people over 50, including requiring a health pass to use public transport.
A spokesman for Italy’s health ministry said the country is “still in a delicate phase” and the recent daily rise in the number of cases continued to put pressure on intensive care units. Italian scientists mostly agreed that it is too early to declare the situation endemic, even if the time had come “to think about the new normal” of living with the virus, said Fabrizio Pregliasco, a virologist at the University of Milan.
That kind of caution is evident from a wide range of health professionals and researchers across Europe, some of whom made a plea this week in The British Medical Journal for better coordination in tackling the pandemic. They argued that there was still an urgent need to “reduce infections to prevent overwhelming health systems and protect public life and the economy”..”
“Even under the most optimistic assumptions,” they wrote, “Omicron leaves unfettered risks that could have devastating consequences.”
In England hospital admissions are still very high in some areas, especially in the northeast, and illness among health workers continues to strain the system.
England must take a “thought-out, managed approach” to the pandemic, “as we reflect on what our new normal will look like,” said Saffron Cordery, the deputy director of NHS Providers, England’s membership organization for England’s health staff.
But, she added, it was clear that the country was beginning to develop a pattern of life through several waves of the virus. With much uncertainty ahead, she said it would be misguided to view this moment as a turning point.
“Instead of a 100-meter straight-line sprint to the Covid finish,” she explained, “it’s more of a long-term cross-country run through all kinds of different terrains before we get to that destination.”
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome, Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin and Aurelien Breeden from Paris. Raphael Minder also contributed reporting.