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COVID-19 RULES

Why Danish government is considering more scope for epidemic restrictions

The Danish government must currently receive the backing of parliament before implementing major interventions in response to a public health threat such as the Covid-19 pandemic. But an evaluation by two ministries suggests they favour more flexibility on the area.

Face masks are no longer required in Denmark
Face masks are no longer required in Denmark, but an evaluation by two ministries proposes that some public health restrictions could be more easily implemented in future. photo: Ólafur Steinar Rye Gestsson/Ritzau Scanpix

Under current laws, parliament must vote to approve the categorisation of a disease as a ‘critical threat’ to society (samfundskritisk).

Only when a disease or an epidemic has been categorised in this way by parliament can all  of the interventions available to the government under the epidemic law be brought into play.

In other words, the government must face parliamentary checks and controls before implementing restrictions.

Those interventions range from the most invasive, such as lockdowns and assembly limits, to less invasive, but still significant, measures such as face mask mandates and health pass requirements like those seen with the coronapas (Covid-19 health pass) during the Covid-19 pandemic.

READ ALSO: Denmark decommissions country’s Covid-19 health pass

The Ministry of Health now wants to change the existing structure within the Epidemic Law, newspaper Jyllands-Posten reported on Monday.

In an evaluation, the ministry proposes a change to the rules such that requirements for things like face masks and the coronapas can be introduced for diseases that are not only in the ‘critical threat’ category, but also for those rated an almen farlig sygdom, ‘dangerous to public health’.

This would put some of the restrictions in the lower category which is not subject to parliamentary control.

The evaluation was sent by the health and justice ministries to parliament in October but has escaped wider attention until now, Jyllands-Posten writes.

In its evaluation of the epidemic law, the Justice Ministry states that there is a “large jump” between the small pool of restrictions that can be introduced against ‘dangerous to public health diseases’ and the major societal interventions the government – with parliamentary backing – can use once a disease is classed as a ‘critical threat’.

“This jump does not quite seem to correspond with the actual demand for potential restrictions against diseases dangerous to public health, which can spread while not being critical to society,” the ministry writes.

The health ministry said in the evaluation the “consideration” should be made as to whether less invasive measures should continue to pass through parliament, as is the case under the current rules.

The national organisation for municipalities, KL, has told parliament that it backs the thinking of the ministries over the issue but that parliamentary control must be retained.

The Danish Council on Ethics (Det Etiske Råd) told Jyllands-Posten that it was “very sceptical” regarding the recommendation.

“The council therefore points out that a slippery slope could result if the restrictions, interventions and options that can be brought into use with diseases that present a critical threat to society, can also be used with dangerous diseases like normal influenza,” the council said.

The minority government’s allied political parties all stated scepticism towards the proposal, in comments reported by Jyllands-Posten.

In a written comment, the health ministry told the newspaper that Health Minister Magnus Heunicke would discuss committee stage responses with the other partied before deciding on “the need for initiatives”.

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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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