LONDON (AP) — For many in the UK, the pandemic might as well be over.
Mask requirements have been dropped. Free mass testing is a thing of the past. And for the first time since spring 2020, people can go on holiday abroad without ordering tests or filling out lengthy forms.
This sense of freedom is widespread even as infections skyrockets in Britain in March, driven by the milder but more transmissible omicron BA.2 variant which is spreading rapidly in Europe, the United States and elsewhere.
The situation in the UK may portend what lies ahead for other countries as they ease coronavirus restrictions.
France and Germany have seen similar spikes in infections in recent weeks, and the number of hospitalizations in the UK and France has risen again – although daily death tolls remain well below levels seen earlier in the pandemic.
In the USA, more Americans are testing at home, so the number of official cases is likely a vast undercount. The list of newly infected people includes actors and politicians, who are regularly tested. Cabinet members, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Broadway actors and the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut have all tested positive.
Britain stands out in Europe because it scrapped all mitigation policies in February, including mandatory self-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 doing well.
Some scientists say now is a good time to accept that “living with COVID” means tolerating some level of disruption and death, much like we do with seasonal flu. Others believe the UK government lifted restrictions too quickly and too soon. They warned that deaths and hospital admissions could continue to rise as more people over the age of 55 – those most likely to fall seriously ill from COVID-19 – are now infected despite high levels of vaccination.
Hospitals are again being strained, both by patients with the virus and large numbers of sick staff, said National Health Service medical director Stephen Powis.
“Blinding ourselves to this level of danger does not mean living with a viral infection – quite the contrary,” said Stephen Griffin, professor of medicine at the University of Leeds. “Without sufficient vaccination, ventilation, masking, isolation and testing, we will continue to ‘live with’ disruption, disease and, sadly, death as a result.”
Others, like Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, are more sympathetic to government policies.
“We’re still not at the point where (COVID-19) will be the least harmful…but we’re past the worst,” he said. Once a high vaccination rate is achieved, there is little point in maintaining restrictions such as social distancing because “they never prevent infections, they only delay them”, he argued.
Britain’s official statistics agency estimated nearly 5 million UK residents, or 1 in 13, had the virus by the end of March, the most it had reported. Separately, the REACT study from Imperial College London said its data showed the country’s infection levels in March were 40% higher than omicron’s first peak in January.
Infection rates are so high that airlines had to cancel flights during the busy two-week Easter holiday because too many workers were calling in sick.
France and Germany have seen similar surges as restrictions have been eased in most European countries. More than 100,000 people in France were testing positive every day despite a sharp drop in testing, and the number of patients infected with the virus in intensive care has increased by 22% over the past week.
The government of President Emmanuel Macron, anxious to encourage voter turnout in the April elections, does not mention any new restrictions.
In Germany, infection levels have declined from a recent peak. But Health Minister Karl Lauterbach backed down from decision to end mandatory self-isolation for those infected just two days after it was announced. He said the plan would send a “completely false” signal that “either the pandemic is over or the virus has become much more harmless than previously assumed”.
In the United States, outbreaks at Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University are bringing mask requirements back to those campuses as officials search for quarantine space.
In all of Europe, only Spain and Switzerland have joined the UK in lifting self-isolation requirements for at least some infected people.
But many European countries have facilitated mass testing, which will make it much harder to know the prevalence of the virus. Britain stopped handing out free rapid home tests this month.
Julian Tang, flu virologist at the University of Leicester, said while it is important to have a surveillance program to monitor new variants and update the vaccine, countries are dealing with the flu without restrictions mandatory or mass testing.
“Eventually, COVID-19 will settle in to become more endemic and seasonal, like the flu,” Tang said. “Living with COVID, for me, should mimic living with the flu.”
Cambridge University virologist Ravindra Gupta is more cautious. Death rates from COVID-19 are still far higher than seasonal flu and the virus causes more severe illness, he warned. He would have preferred “a gentler easing of restrictions”.
“There is no reason to believe that a new variant would not be more transmissible or more severe,” he added.
Geir Moulson and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Angela Charlton in Paris, Barry Hatton in Lisbon and other AP journalists across Europe contributed to this report.
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