Omicron : The Omicron shift in Europe: pandemic or endemic?
The shift comes even as the World Health Organisation cautioned this week against treating the virus like the seasonal flu, saying it was too soon to make that call.
Much about the disease remains unknown, the WHO said. And a surge in cases driven by the Omicron variant is still battering the continent, while the population of much of the world remains vulnerable because of a lack of widespread vaccination, and more variants are still likely to arise.
Still, advocates of the “learn to live with it” approach point out that the latest surge in cases is different 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 far lower rate of hospitalisation.
The sentiment is evident in the evolving policies that the British government has adopted since the start of this year, a stark departure from the “war footing” that the country’s health service preached in December.
One of the biggest concerns in England has been the intense pressure that the virus puts on the National Health Service, or NHS.
But some of the immediate concerns that Britain’s hospitals could become overwhelmed with patients during this latest wave have begun to ease.
Matthew Taylor, head of the NHS Confederation, a membership organisation for the heads of hospitals, said 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 to come into effect once the current surge in cases ebbs, and the country also recently relaxed its isolation rules.
But Madrid’s push for Omicron to be treated more like the flu has been criticised by some doctors and professional associations as well as by the European Medicines Agency, who say the virus is still behaving as a pandemic.
In France, infections are still trending upward, with nearly 300,000 newly reported coronavirus cases a day this week, almost six times as many as a month ago.
But President Emmanuel Macron, who is facing a presidential election in April, has opted to keep minimal restrictions in place and focused instead on urging the French to get vaccinated.
The changes include shorter isolation periods and the elimination of pre-departure tests for people travelling to England largely because Omicron was already so prevalent that the tests had a limited effect on its spread.
There have been some concrete signs that Britain may be turning a corner. There were 99,652 new cases reported 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 modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told BBC Radio 4 this week.
He added that the end of the pandemic was likely to occur in phases rather than appear as “an active point in time” when it can be declared to be over.
Amid this shift, the messaging to the public has varied, often in confusing ways.
The guidance can be all over the map, with some politicians declaring the latest wave over and others advocating a gradual return to normalcy all while many experts express caution about all of the unknowns and the potential for new variants.
In Britain, France, Spain and other countries across Europe, politicians and some public health experts are pushing a new approach to the coronavirus pandemic borne of both boldness and resignation: that the illness is becoming a fixture of daily life.
Governments are seizing a moment in which their populations have experienced less severe illness and, in some instances, a drop in new daily cases after weeks of record growth. And they are moving their mitigation policies off emergency footing.