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COVID-19 RULES

Denmark returns to ‘life as we knew it’ as Covid-19 restrictions end despite Omicron

Denmark on Tuesday became the first European Union country to lift all of its Covid restrictions despite record numbers of cases, relying on its high vaccination rate to cope with the milder Omicron variant.

Shopping without a face mask - like in this 2019 file photo - returns to Denmark on February 1st 2022 as Covid-19 restrictions end.
Shopping without a face mask - like in this 2019 file photo - returns to Denmark on February 1st 2022 as Covid-19 restrictions end. Photo: Asger Ladefoged/Ritzau Scanpix

After a first attempt at lifting all its restrictions between September and November, the Scandinavian country is once again ditching its face masks, Covid passes and limited opening hours for bars and restaurants.

“I’m so happy that this is all going to be over tomorrow. It’s good for life in the city, for nightlife, just to be able to be out longer”, 17-year-old student Thea Skovgaard told AFP the day before the lifting.

Nightclubs reopen on Tuesday, when limits on the number of people allowed at indoor gatherings also come to an end.

Only a few restrictions remain in place at the country’s borders, for unvaccinated travellers arriving from non-Schengen countries.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: What changes about life in Denmark in February 2022?

The easing comes as Denmark registers around 40,000-50,000 new Covid cases a day, or almost one percent of the country’s 5.8 million inhabitants.

“We have an extremely high coverage of adults vaccinated with three doses,” epidemiologist Lone Simonsen of the University of Roskilde told AFP.

More than 60 percent of Danes have received a third dose — one month ahead of health authorities’ schedule — compared to an EU average of just under 45 percent.

Including those who have recently had Covid, health authorities estimate that 80 percent of the population are protected against severe forms of the disease.

“With Omicron not being a severe disease for the vaccinated, we believe it is reasonable to lift restrictions”, Simonsen said.

The broad spread of the Omicron variant is also expected to lead to a “more robust and long-lasting immunity”, helping the country fend off future waves, she said.

Two years after the outbreak of Covid-19, the Danish strategy enjoys broad support at home.

In a poll published Monday by daily Politiken, 64 percent of Danes surveyed said they had faith in the government’s Covid policy.

Going forward, Danes are being urged to exercise personal responsibility, Simonsen said.

“Without a Covid pass there will be a shift of responsibility”, she said.

Danes have increasingly used home tests to detect infection, but these are now being phased out and instead, anyone with symptoms is advised to stay home.

The Danish Health Authority currently “recommends” those who test positive to isolate for four days, while contact cases no longer need to quarantine.

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Face masks and the Covid pass are also recommended for hospital visits.

The government said it does not expect to have to revert to new closures again but has remained cautiously optimistic.

“We can’t provide any guarantees when it comes to biology”, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said last week when announcing the country’s return “to life as we knew it before corona”.

“It’s really nice that this is ending but will we really live without any restrictions now? I doubt it,” said Cille Hjort, a fast-food vendor eager to see her patrons’ faces without masks again.

This is the second time Denmark has tried to return to a pre-pandemic lifestyle.

On September 10th, the country lifted all its restrictions, before reintroducing some of them in early November.

Museums, cinemas and theatre and concert venues then closed just before Christmas, and reopened again in early January.

Faced with a lower level of hospitalisations than in previous waves, several European countries, including France, Ireland and the United Kingdom, have announced the lifting or a considerable reduction of their restrictions, despite record or very high cases.

“Two years into the pandemic, populations in most countries have reached high levels of immunity, from vaccines or natural illness”, Simonsen said.

“This is how it ends, judging from what we have seen with historical pandemics”.

According to the World Health Organization, 73 percent of the European population has contracted Covid-19 at least once since January 2020.

Tyra Krause of Denmark’s public health and research institution SSI said meanwhile she expected Covid-19 to return in regular waves, “like the flu”.

“We may end up having to vaccinate risk groups ahead of the autumn to prevent severe cases”, she told science magazine Videnskab.

READ ALSO: Denmark to drop Covid-19 travel restrictions for vaccinated persons

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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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