Covid restrictions have been eased across the UK this week and cases are falling, with 96,000 reported yesterday, down from 102,000 on Wednesday and a world away from the 220,000 New Year peak. Which begs the question: how optimistic should we feel about the unfolding situation with Omicron?
In England, most of the Plan B restrictions have now been scrapped: Covid passes are no longer compulsory at large venues, work from home guidance has been dropped, as has the face mask mandate – although Transport for London and some shops are still asking customers to wear one.
At the start of next week, nightclubs will also be open again in Scotland and Wales, although Covid passes will be in place for large venues and masks will still be mandatory in most indoor spaces.
The limit on the number of visitors allowed into care homes will also be scrapped – a restriction which has contributed to a great deal of loneliness among the elderly. However, patient visits are still significantly limited or banned completely in most hospitals, and there is no word on when this policy might be reversed.
One big decision will be when to scrap self-isolation rules for those testing positive for Covid. Existing regulation expires on 24 March, but Boris Johnson has hinted that he may end self-isolation before then.
The loosening of rules comes despite daily cases averaging just over 90,000 for the past seven days – well above last winter’s peak. And while hospitalisations have fallen by 15.3% in a week, the drop in infections is tapering off, falling by just 2% over the same period.
How much should we let these high infection rates unnerve us?
Daily deaths from Omicron in the UK appear to have peaked at just below 300 – a similar figure to that witnessed during a bad flu season. And, while many epidemiologists predict cases could remain high until well into spring, there’s reason to believe hospitalisations and deaths will keep on falling: a growing proportion of infections will be re-infections, meaning they’re likely to result in milder illness.
As we make the transition from pandemic to endemic, “We’re going to have to accept that Covid is something we’re all likely to catch at some point,” says Prof Colbourn, a UCL epidemiologist. “Those calling for continued suppression are not thinking it through… Omicron is just too infectious.”
Indeed, countries across the continent which reverted to near-lockdowns in the face of Omicron have failed to suppress it. In the Netherlands, for instance, cases have now risen higher than in the UK – despite the government imposing some of the toughest restrictions in Europe and closing bars, restaurants and museums from mid-December until this week.
A growing number of scientists who once backed a zero-Covid policy have acknowledged this is no longer the right approach. One former advocate, Professor Devi Sridhar of Edinburgh University, has warned that restrictions now risk doing more harm than the “defanged” virus.
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Denmark is leading the way with a braver approach. From Monday, all pandemic restrictions are set to be scrapped, after the government announced this week that “Covid-19 should no longer be categorised as a socially critical disease.” The UK may not be far behind.