For many in Britain, it is as if the pandemic is over.
Mask requirements have been dropped. Free bulk trials are a thing of the past. And for the first time since spring 2020, people can vacation abroad without ordering diagnostic tests or filling out lengthy forms.
That sense of freedom is widespread despite infections soaring in Britain in March, fueled by the milder but more contagious BA.2 omicron sub-variant, which is spreading rapidly across Europe, the United States and elsewhere.
The situation in Britain could be a preview of what awaits other countries as coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
France and Germany have seen similar increases in infections in recent weeks, and the number of hospitalizations in Britain and France rose again, although the daily death toll remains well below figures seen at other times in the pandemic.
In the United States, more and more Americans are testing at home, so the official numbers of cases are probably well below the reality. Among the newly infected there are actors and politicians, who are often tested. Several members of the government, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, Broadway actors and the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut have tested positive.
Britain stands out in Europe because it abandoned all prevention measures in February, including mandatory isolation for those infected. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government is determined to stick to its “living with COVID” plan, but experts disagree on whether the country is managing it well.
Some scientists say the time is right to accept that “living with COVID” means tolerating a certain level of deaths and complications in everyday life, like we do with seasonal flu. Others believe that the British government lifted the restrictions too quickly and too early. They warned that deaths and hospitalizations could continue to rise because more people 55 and older, those most likely to develop severe COVID-19, are now getting it despite high vaccination rates.
Hospitals are again under pressure, both from patients with the virus and from the many casualties of infected workers, said the medical director of the National Health Service, Stephen Powis.
“Closing your eyes to this level of damage is not living with a viral infection, quite the opposite,” said Stephen Griffin, a professor of medicine at the University of Leeds. “Without sufficient vaccinations, ventilation, masks, isolation and testing, we will continue to live with complications, illness and, sadly, death.”
Others, like Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, viewed government policies more favorably.
“We’re not at the point where (COVID-19) is going to be less damaging … but we’ve been through the worst,” he said. Once a high vaccination rate is reached, he noted, maintaining restrictions such as social distancing is of little value because “they ultimately never prevent infections, they only delay them,” he argued.
The British statistics agency estimated that almost 5 million residents in Britain, or one in 13, had the virus at the end of March, the highest figure ever reported by the agency. On the other hand, the REACT study from Imperial College London said its data showed the country’s contagion rate in March was 40% higher than with the first omicron spike in January.
The infection rate is so high that airlines had to cancel flights during the bustling Easter week because too many workers were on sick leave.
France and Germany have seen similar increases after restrictions were lifted in most European countries. More than 100,000 people in France were testing positive a day despite a sharp drop in testing, and the number of virus patients in intensive care rose 22% in the last week.
The government of the president, Emmanuel Macron, eager to encourage participation in the April elections, is not considering new restrictions.
In Germany, infection rates have eased after a recent spike. But Health Minister Karl Lauterbach backed down on the decision to end isolation for infected people just two days after announcing it. The plan, he claimed, would give a “completely wrong” impression that “either the pandemic is over or the virus has become considerably less harmful than was considered in the past.”
In the United States, outbreaks at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins Universities have reinstated mask regulations on those campuses as officials sought quarantine spaces.
In Europe, only Spain and Switzerland have joined Britain in lifting isolation requirements for at least some infected people.
But many European countries have reduced mass testing, making it much harder to know the prevalence of the virus. Britain stopped distributing free home tests this month.
Julian Tang, a leading flu virologist at the University of Leiscester, said that while it is important to have a surveillance program to monitor new variants and update the vaccine, countries manage the flu without mandatory restrictions or mass testing.
“In the end, COVID-19 will settle down to become more endemic and seasonal, like the flu,” Tang said. “Living with COVID, to me, should mimic living with the flu.”
Cambridge University virologist Ravindra Gupta is more cautious. Death rates from COVID-19 remain much higher than seasonal flu, and the virus causes more severe illness, he warned. He would have preferred “a softer lifting of restrictions”.
“There is no reason to believe that a new variant cannot be more contagious or more serious,” he added.
Geir Moulson and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Angela Charlton in Paris, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, and other Associated Press journalists from around Europe contributed to this report.