LONDON — Several European countries are scrapping Covid regulations, despite the WHO urging governments to “protect their people using every tool in the toolkit.”
Sweden lifted the majority of its remaining Covid-19 restrictions on Wednesday, following the lead of fellow Nordic nations Denmark and Norway.
Meanwhile, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced this week plans to end self-isolation rules for people who test positive for Covid earlier than expected.
In Sweden, social distancing requirements, the use of vaccine passports and limits on the number of people gathering in one place were lifted this week. Free testing in the country also ended on Wednesday, and the government is looking to reclassify Covid as a disease that is “not a danger to society or a threat to public health” from April 1.
In a press release last week, the Swedish government said it believed the situation was “sufficiently stable to begin phasing out infection control measures.”
“Vaccination is the single most important weapon in the fight against Covid-19,” it added.
In Sweden, 73% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins University.
‘Have a little more patience’
However, Fredrik Elgh, professor of virology at Sweden’s Umea University, told Reuters the country needed to “have a little more patience” and wait at least a couple more weeks before lifting restrictions.
“We are wealthy enough to keep testing,” he argued. “The disease is still a huge strain on society.”
It comes after Denmark became the first country in the EU to lift all of its Covid restrictions on Feb. 1, despite cases rising. Infections in the country reached record highs just a day later.
The Danish government said in a statement in January it had decided that “Covid-19 should no longer be categorized as a socially critical disease.”
More than 80% of Denmark’s population is fully vaccinated against the virus, JHU data shows.
‘Vaccines offering protection’
Norway also lifted “a large number of Covid-19 measures” on Feb. 1, but kept its recommendation to maintain a 1-meter distance from others and a requirement to wear a mask when this is not possible.
“Even though many people are becoming infected with Covid-19, lower numbers of people are being admitted to hospital,” Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store said in a statement at the time. “Vaccines are offering good protection — this means we can now remove a large number of measures, even though the infection rate is rising quickly.”
Norway recorded a record high of 26,109 new cases on Tuesday, according to JHU data.
In the U.K. this week, Johnson told lawmakers in Parliament that his government planned to lift the legal requirement for people with Covid to self-isolate at the end of this month.
Currently, people who test positive for the virus can end their isolation after five days providing they test negative on days five and six. Many of the few remaining restrictions in England, including mask mandates, were lifted at the end of January.
On Wednesday, the U.K. recorded 68,214 new cases of Covid-19.
But while Sweden, Norway and Denmark recorded 114, 45 and 21 deaths respectively from the virus on Wednesday, the U.K. recorded 276.
‘Creating a diversion’
Cases in Britain have declined drastically from their peak of more than 270,000 in a single day at the end of last year, with deaths also dropping substantially from their peak of 1,299 in January 2021.
But while cases of Covid have decoupled from deaths in the U.K. since vaccines were rolled out, other risk factors, like the prevalence of long Covid, remain. A recent English study found that as many as one in seven children who contracted the virus developed long Covid, the name given to ongoing symptoms.
Around 85% of the U.K.’s eligible population — those over the age of 12 — is fully vaccinated with two doses in Britain, official data shows, while two-thirds have received a booster shot.
However, Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of global public health at Edinburgh University Medical School, told Sky News on Thursday that the U.K. government’s decision on isolation laws would not be a “welcome surprise” for most people.
“Isolation is about stopping someone who’s infectious passing [the virus] on to someone else,” she said. “It’s, I think, too early right now … We have a system where if you test negative on that after day five [and] day six you can get out of isolation. I don’t know why you’d change that when we still have over 200 deaths a day.”
Johnson’s leadership is under pressure after an official inquiry found he and various government departments had broken Covid rules on a number of occasions by throwing and attending parties during coronavirus lockdowns. Johnson has rejected calls for his resignation, some of which have come from lawmakers within his own Conservative party.
Sridhar told Sky on Thursday that she felt the government’s plans to revoke isolation requirements in the U.K. were more politically motivated than based on scientific evidence.
“If you look at the timing, it’s clearly to create headlines and distract from the problems that the prime minister is facing,” she said. “We’re now having a shift of the dialogue towards discussing the end of the pandemic because there’s a need to create a diversion.”
Christina Pagel, director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London, agreed that the U.K. government’s plans to scrap isolation rules were “not science based.”
“Dropping isolation makes work and socializing riskier and boosters are waning, Covid keeps evolving and it’s harder to know about local case levels,” she said in a tweet on Wednesday. “Basically, [the government] plans that we will all get Covid several times — like a cold, but with a much more dangerous disease.”
In a poll of 4,451 British adults by YouGov on Wednesday, 75% of participants said they believed isolation rules should remain in place for the time being. Almost half said people should forever be legally required to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid, while more than a quarter said the isolation law should stay in place for the next few months.
Just 17% of those who participated in the survey said people in the U.K. should no longer be legally required to self-isolate after testing positive for the virus.
Too soon to surrender
On Feb. 1, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said most regions of the world were experiencing a “very worrying increase in deaths” due to Covid, thanks to the highly transmissible omicron variant.
“More transmission means more deaths,” he told a press conference. “We are not calling for any country to return to a so-called lockdown. But we are calling on all countries to protect their people using every tool in the toolkit – not vaccines alone.”
“It’s premature for any country either to surrender or to declare victory,” Tedros added.