The countries dropping their COVID-19 restrictions entirely despite the Omicron surge

With Sweden declaring the COVID-19 pandemic "over" and Denmark no longer considering the virus a "socially critical disease", here’s a look at how some European countries are handling Omicron waves.

People queue outside a nightclub in Malmo, Sweden, 9 February 2022.

People queue outside a nightclub in Malmo, Sweden, 9 February 2022. Source: Johan Nilsson/TT

As the contagious Omicron COVID-19 variant spreads across the world, case numbers and deaths from the virus have been reaching record levels in many countries.

But even with those numbers, after two years of restrictions and lockdowns, and with vaccination rates rising, some countries in the north of Europe are moving to completely scrap COVID protocols imposed to keep the virus from circulating.

Here's a look at what they're doing.

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Sweden

During the pandemic, Sweden has made international headlines for consistently, and somewhat controversially, resisting lockdowns while the rest of the world opted for them.

And this week, the Scandinavian country raised further eyebrows when it said the pandemic was essentially “over”, scrapped almost all of its few remaining restrictions, and stopped most testing for COVID-19, even as the pressure on the healthcare systems remained high and some scientists begged for more patience.

With vaccines and the Omicron variant cushioning severe cases and deaths, Health Minister Lena Hallengren said COVID-19 would no longer be classified as a danger to society.

"This pandemic, I would say it's over," she told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper. "It's not over, but as we know it in terms of quick changes and restrictions, it is."

Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren
Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren Source: TT News Agency


When restrictions were lifted on Wednesday, Swedish hospitals were still feeling the strain, with around 2,200 people with COVID requiring hospital care, about the same as during the third wave in the spring of 2021.

But with free testing reduced earlier in February and effectively stopped this week - Sweden's Health Agency said it was too expensive in relation to the benefits - no one knows the exact number of cases.

"We should have a little more patience, wait at least a couple of more weeks. And we are wealthy enough to keep testing," Fredrik Elgh, professor of virology at Umea University and one of the staunchest critics of Sweden's no-lockdown policy, told Reuters.

"The disease is still a huge strain on society," he said.

Nearly 74 per cent of Sweden’s population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to .

Denmark

Denmark, Sweden’s Nordic neighbour, on 1 February lifted all restrictions introduced to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant after officials said they no longer considered COVID-19 "a socially critical disease".

Officials said that while Omicron is surging in the country - deaths and case numbers have hung around record levels in the days since restrictions were lifted - the variant was not placing a heavy burden on the health system.

Authorities on Friday also said they were considering "winding down" the country's vaccination program and saw no reason now to administer a booster dose to children or a fourth shot to any more residents at risk of severe COVID-19.



The Danish Health Authority said the third infection wave in the European country was waning "due to the large population immunity".

"We will of course follow the epidemic closely, and we are ready to change our decision if, contrary to expectations, there is a fourth spring wave or new worrying variants this spring," it said in a statement.

More than 80 per cent of Denmark’s population is fully vaccinated, according to JHU.

Norway

Norway also lifted a swathe of COVID-19 restrictions on 1 February, though it kept recommendations to keep a one-metre distance from others and a requirement to wear a mask when this is not possible.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said at the time of the announcement “that even though many people are becoming infected with COVID-19, lower numbers of people are being admitted to hospital”.

“Vaccines are offering good protection — this means we can now remove a large number of measures, even though the infection rate is rising quickly.”

Since then, cases and deaths have ballooned to record levels, and hospitalisations have begun to rise again as well.

Vaccination rates in Norway sit at nearly 75 per cent, and Mr Støre said that uptake gave authorities confidence to relax the restrictions.

The remaining restrictions could be lifted as early as 17 February if the spread of the virus develops as expected. 

England

Amid revelations of , British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced this week all regulations could be scrapped in England within a fortnight – including the requirement to isolate after testing positive for the virus 

Mr Johnson told the British parliament on Thursday he would, if infection levels remain stable, bring the changes forward by a month.

Mr Johnson's spokesman later told reporters it was justified by falling case numbers and hospitalisation rates but noted the law to self-isolate could be reimposed promptly in response to any dangerous new variant.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Source: EPA


The number of positive COVID-19 cases has fallen sharply since the new year, although they are still at high levels. On Thursday, the UK reported 67,874 new infections and 284 deaths.

About 73 per cent of the population has been double vaccinated, according to JHU.

The UK government only has responsibility for health policy in England, with devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland setting their own rules.

Ahead of Mr Johnson's unexpected announcement, Bruce Aylward, senior advisor to the World Health Organization director-general, warned the COVID-19 numbers globally were still "absolutely staggering".

"What we're learning to live with is not just this virus, but what should be an unacceptable burden of disease, an unacceptable number of deaths every single day," he told the BBC.

Finland

Finland is looking to make similar moves as well, with the government saying earlier this month it would remove curbs on public gatherings from 14 February.

Prime Minister Sanna Marin said the overall plan was to remove all restrictions at the start of March, and that the country would closely monitor developments in Norway and Denmark.

Despite high infections around the turn of the year, Finland remains among countries least affected by the pandemic.

This past Thursday, with numbers hovering at record levels, it had a seven-day COVID case and death average of 8,939 and 17 respectively.

According to JHU, Finland has vaccinated 76 per cent of its populaton.

With AFP, Reuters and AAP.


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6 min read
Published 12 February 2022 at 2:38pm
Source: SBS News