For many in the UK, the pandemic may just as well be over.
The mask requirements are given. Free mass testing is a thing of the past. And for the first time since the spring of 2020, people can go abroad on vacations without ordering tests or filling out lengthy forms.
This sense of freedom is widespread, even as infections rose sharply in the UK in March, driven by the milder but more transmissible Omicron BA.2 variant, which quickly spread around Europe, the US and elsewhere.
The situation in the United Kingdom may herald what lies ahead for other countries as they ease coronavirus restrictions.
France and Germany have seen similar increases in infections in recent weeks, and the number of hospital admissions in the UK and France has risen again – although the number of deaths per today remains well below the level seen earlier in the pandemic.
In the United States, more and more Americans are testing at home, so official case numbers are likely to be a large underscore. The list of the newly infected includes actors and politicians, who are tested regularly. 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 dropped 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 “live with COVID” plan, but experts disagree on whether the country is doing well.
Some scientists argue that it is the right time to accept that “living with COVID” means tolerating a certain level of disturbance and death, just as we do for seasonal flu. Others believe the UK government lifted the restrictions too soon and too soon. They warned that deaths and hospitalizations could continue to rise because more people over 55 – those most likely to become seriously ill with COVID-19 – are now becoming infected despite high levels of vaccination.
Hospitals are again under pressure, both from patients with the virus and a large number of sick staff, said National Health Service medical director Stephen Powis.
“Blinding ourselves to this level of harm does not mean living with a viral infection – on the contrary,” said Stephen Griffin, a professor of medicine at the University of Leeds. “Without adequate vaccination, ventilation, masking, isolation and testing, we will continue to ‘live with’ disorders, illness and unfortunately death as a result.”
Others, including Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, support government policy more.
“We are still not at the point where [COVID-19] will be least harmful … but we are over the worst, ”he said. Once a high vaccination rate is achieved, there is little value in maintaining restrictions such as social distancing because “in the end, they never prevent infections, only delay them,” he argued.
The UK’s official statistics office estimated that almost 5 million British people, or 1 in 13, had the virus by the end of March, the most it had reported. Separately, the REACT study from London Imperial College said its data showed that the country’s infection levels in March were 40% higher than the first Omicron peak in January.
Infection rates are so high that airlines have to cancel flights during the busy two-week Easter holiday because too many workers reported sick.
France and Germany have seen similar increases as restrictions were eased in most European countries. More than 100,000 people in France tested positive every day despite a sharp drop in testing, and the number of virus patients on intensive care increased 22% over the past week.
President Emmanuel Macron’s government, which is eager to promote turnout in this month’s election, is not talking about any new restrictions.
In Germany, the level of infection has dropped from a recent high. But Health Minister Karl Lauterbach backed a decision to end mandatory self-isolation for infected people just two days after it was announced. He said the plan would send a “completely wrong” signal that “either the pandemic is over or the virus has become significantly more harmless than previously thought.”
In the United States, outbreaks at Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University are bringing mask claims back to these campuses as officials search for quarantine.
Across Europe, only Spain and Switzerland have joined the UK to lift self-isolation requirements for at least some infected people.
However, many European countries have facilitated mass testing, which will make it much harder to know how widespread the virus is. The UK stopped distributing free quick home tests this month.
Julian Tang, an influenza virologist at the University of Leicester, said that while it is important to have a monitoring program to monitor for new variants and update the vaccine, countries manage the flu without mandatory restrictions or mass testing.
“Eventually, COVID-19 will settle down to become more endemic and seasonal, just like the flu,” Tang said. “Living with COVID should for me mimic living with the flu.”
Cambridge University virologist Ravindra Gupta is more cautious. The mortality rate for COVID-19 is still far higher than seasonal flu, and the virus is causing more serious illness, he warned. He would have preferred “more gentle easing of restrictions.”
“There is no reason to believe that a new variant would not be more transmissible or serious,” he added.