LONDON – In the UK, France, Spain and elsewhere in Europe, politicians and some public health experts are promoting a new approach to the coronavirus pandemic that is both bold and humble: disease is becoming an integral part of everyday life.
Governments are seizing a moment when their populations have suffered less severe illnesses, and in some cases, the number of new daily cases has dropped after several weeks of record growth. And they are shifting their mitigation policy away from the emergency.
In Spain, for example, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said last week that citizens “will have to learn to live with it, as they do with many other viruses” and said the country should adjust its national approach to more closely match how he copes with flu outbreaks. Olivier Veran, France’s health minister, recently said that high infection rates in France and high vaccination rates could “possibly” mean this will be the last wave.
The shift comes even after the World Health Organization this week warned against treating the virus like seasonal flu, saying it is too early to make such a call. Much remains unknown about the disease, according to the WHO. And the spike in cases caused by the Omicron variant is still hitting the continent, while the population of much of the world remains vulnerable due to the lack of widespread vaccination, and new variants are still likely to emerge.
However, proponents of the “learn to live with it” approach point out that the latest spike in cases differs from the early days of the virus in several important ways, including a heavily vaccinated population in parts of Europe, especially in the West, and a much lower hospitalization rate.
The sentiment is evident in the changing policies that the British government has adopted since the beginning of this year, sharply departing from the “military pillar” that the country’s health service preached in December.
The changes include shorter isolation periods and the cancellation of pre-departure tests for people traveling to England, mainly because Omicron was already so widespread that tests had a limited impact on its distribution.
There were some concrete signs that the UK might be turning the corner. There were 99,652 new cases on Friday, markedly fewer than the 178,250 cases reported on the same day last week.
“This cannot be an emergency forever,” Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told BBC Radio 4 this week. He added that the end of the pandemic is likely to occur in stages, and not as a “point in time” when it can be announced that it is over.
Amid this shift, messages to the public have changed, often confusingly. Leadership can be everywhere: some politicians say the latest wave is over and others advocate a gradual return to normal, while many experts are wary of all unknown and potential options.
Peter English, a former consultant on infectious disease control, said for many public health experts and scientists in the UK, the discussion has shifted from lockdowns to common sense mitigation measures. Most of them now promote measures such as the mandatory wearing of masks in public and legislation on ventilation standards.
“There was a controversy about zero Covid and trying to eradicate the virus with restrictions,” he said. “I think we lost this dispute. I think that by allowing it to spread to the extent that it is, it will be very, very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. ”
From that perspective, he said, “we’ll have to live with the fact that it’s endemic.” But, he added, “endemic doesn’t mean frivolous,” and called for caution with the idea of simply “learning to live with it” without taking mitigation measures.
One of the biggest problems in England has been the intense pressure the virus is putting on the National Health Service, or NHS.
Matthew Taylor, head of the Confederation NHS, an affiliate of hospital chiefs, said on Wednesday that “unless things suddenly change, we are close to a national peak in Covid patients in hospitals.”
Spain is setting up a new monitoring system that will take effect after the current spike in cases subsides and the country has also recently relaxed its isolation rules. But Madrid’s push for Omicron to be treated 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, the number of infections is still on the upward trend, with nearly 300,000 new coronavirus cases reported every day this week, nearly six times more than a month ago. But President Emmanuel Macron, who faces a presidential election in April, has opted to keep the restrictions minimal and instead focused on convincing the French to get vaccinated.
Mr Macron’s government has denied accusations that it has backtracked on cuts in cases, including in schools that faced massive teacher strikes on Thursday, concerned about classroom safety.
Mr Veran, France’s health minister who tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday, said authorities are closely monitoring data from the UK to see if France is approaching its own peak.
Germany is weeks behind some of its European neighbors in the fight against a surge in infections. On Tuesday, 80,430 new cases were reported, beating the record set in November. But independent scientific experts have refrained from advising the government on new restrictions, despite widespread belief that the number of infections will continue to rise.
Christian Drosten, the country’s most famous virologist, noted that Germany is likely to eventually have to switch to treating the virus as endemic.
“Let’s put it this way: we don’t have to completely open the gate,” he told a podcast last week. “But in some areas we have to open the door a little to the virus.”
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Italy is also grappling with some of the highest daily infection rates since the start of the pandemic. But in recent weeks, he has tightened restrictions, making vaccines mandatory for people over 50, including requiring a medical pass to use public transport.
A spokesman for Italy’s health ministry said the country is “still in a delicate phase” and that recent daily surges in incidence continue to put pressure on intensive care units. Italian scientists tend to agree that it’s too early to declare the situation endemic, even if it’s time to “start thinking about a new normal” of coexisting with the virus, said Fabrizio Pregliasco, a virologist at the University of Milan.
This caution is evident among a wide range of health professionals and researchers across Europe, some of whom appealed to The British Medical Journal this week to improve coordination in the response to the pandemic. They argued that there was still an urgent need to “reduce the number of infections to avoid overloading health systems and to protect societies and economies.”“.
“Even under the most optimistic assumptions,” they wrote, “let Omicron run unhindered, risking potentially devastating consequences.”
In England, hospitalization rates are still very high in some areas. especially in the northeast, and diseases among healthcare workers continue to burden the system.
England needs to take a “thoughtful, manageable approach” to the pandemic while “thinking about what our new normal will look like,” said Saffron Cordery, Deputy CEO of NHS Providers, an England healthcare provider affiliate.
But, she added, it was clear that the country had begun to model life through several waves of the virus. Since there is still a lot of uncertainty ahead, she said it would be a mistake to think of this moment as a tipping point.
“Instead of being a 100-meter straight-line sprint to the Covid finish line,” she explained, “it’s more of a long cross-country run across all sorts of terrain before we get to our destination.”
Elizabeth Povoledo provided a reportage from Rome, Christopher F. Schütze from Berlin and Aurelien Breeden from Paris. Raphael Minder also contributed to reporting.