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Countries ease restrictions after omicron waves

Thomas Latschan
January 17, 2022

Coronavirus cases have hit global records. Some countries have tightened measures, while others are pushing to relax rules because of the omicron variant's perceived milder infections and high national vaccination rates.

Face mask lying on the ground
Countries worldwide have reacted differently to the omicron-driven surge in infectionsImage: Frank Rumpenhorst/dpa/picture alliance

France: Schools overwhelmed

For the past few weeks, France has registered nearly 300,00 new COVID-19 infections per day. The surging cases are driven mainly by the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus. France's lower house of parliament on Sunday gave final approval to the government's latest measures to slow the spread, including a "vaccine pass" that will replace the current "health pass." It is intended to tighten restrictions on people who remain unvaccinated.

The upcoming law will require people to show proof of vaccination for access to restaurants, bars, cultural institutions, airplanes and long-distance trains. At the moment, people can access these places by showing a recent negative test. The new law will also contain tough provisions to crack down on people who use fake vaccine passes.

Young students sitting at desks, wearing masks
Schools have remained open in France almost throughout the pandemicImage: Pierre Heckler/MAXPPP/picture alliance/dpa

Despite the jump in cases, schools, which closed only briefly in France at the beginning of the pandemic, remain open. On Thursday, teaching staff staged a nationwide strike to protest constantly changing rules for the protection of students and staff as well as a lack of clear regulations that have led to major disruptions in classrooms.

French teachers stage walkout

For instance, the government announced new testing requirements just before the end of the Christmas vacation — and they have been changed twice since.

Denmark: Restrictions eased

Unlike in Paris, life on the streets of Copenhagen is largely normal, with little that would indicate that the Danish capital, too, has been seeing a high COVID-19 incidence rate. In fact, it's been at record high levels for weeks, and is currently at 2,500. More than 20,000 people are infected with the coronavirus every day. All the same, starting Sunday, zoos, amusement parks, movie theaters and theaters have been allowed to reopen, with access granted to people who have been vaccinated, have recovered from the virus or have been tested.

Entrance to a mall, sign that requests people wear a face mask
Denmark has opened up many public venues, despite high COVID-19 infection numbersImage: Francis Joseph Dean/Dean Pictures/imago images

Infections with the omicron variant are milder, and the situation in intensive care units is under control, Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said. He said that though cases remain high, the curve of new infections is leveling off. More than anything, Denmark relies on a high vaccination rate — more than 80% of the people are fully vaccinated, and almost 55% have received a booster shot. The health minister announced that particularly vulnerable population groups will soon receive a fourth vaccination.

Spain: 'Not over'

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said last week that, in order to protect the overburdened health care system, the development of infection numbers would not be monitored as closely as before. Sanchez said that given Spain has a vaccination rate of over 80% and the fact that omicron leads to milder courses of the illness than previous variants, it was time to consider whether it might be time to treat COVID-19 like a wave of influenza.

People wearing face maks walk along a shopping street
In Spain, which is struggling with a surge in COVID cases, people wear face masks outdoors as wellImage: Viktor Cheretskiy/DW

With the country reporting more than 130,000 new infections per day and intensive care units overburdened throughout the country, Spain's government should not compare COVID-19 to influenza, Oscar Zurriaga said. "The pandemic is not over yet, and we don't know where it will take us," the vice president of the Spanish Society of Epidemiology told news agency dpa, adding that the number of COVID deaths is still higher than that of an average flu wave.

Rules vary across the country. While the capital, Madrid, has only a general mask requirement despite a seven-day incidence rate of more than 1,100, several other regions in Spain have introduced more stringent rules. In Asturias, indoor dining is no longer permitted, and Catalonia has a nighttime curfew.

Britain: Surging cases, no lockdown

The situation in the UK is similar to that in Spain, with high infection as well as vaccination rates. Some experts have proclaimed the end of the pandemic, while others still urge caution.

Sajid Javid, man wearing  a face mask, two women with face masks in the background
British Health Minister Javid visited COVID patients at a London hospital in December Image: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/empics/picture alliance

The seven-day incidence rate stands at more than 1,500, including about 170,000 new infections every day. Nevertheless, the former head of the British Vaccine Task Force, Clive Dix, is calling for a return to a "new normal," saying that the omicron variant has mortality rates similar to influenza. Dix advocates a "targeted strategy" for particularly vulnerable populations. More than 90% of the people have had one vaccination, more than 60% have had a booster shot. The incidence rate may be high, but the curve is flattening.

On Thursday, quarantine for people infected with COVID in England was reduced from seven to five days in order to cushion staff shortages in businesses, schools and hospitals. Regulations are stricter in other parts of the UK. In early January, 200 military personnel were sent to London hospitals to help out in cases of staff absences due to the virus. The number of postponed scheduled operations has reached a new record high of six million.

China: Zero tolerance

In contrast to many European countries, there is no sign of easing restrictions in China, even if the incidence rate has been almost zero for months. Three major cities are currently in lockdown: Xi'an with its 13 million inhabitants, Anyang with 5.5 million and Yuzhou which has a population of one million.

In China, a large white tent, rows of tables with people seated on either side
A mass testing site in China's Tianjin Image: CHINATOPIX/dpa/picture alliance

The lockdowns are part of the country's strict zero-COVID strategy. As soon as even a few cases emerge, entire cities are quarantined. All residents are tested and not allowed to leave their homes; close contacts of infected persons are forced to stay in quarantine hotels. China has a mandatory COVIs contact tracing app. International air travel is still severely restricted, with arriving passengers forced to spend weeks in quarantine.

So far, China has officially recorded no more than about 100,000 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic — more people are infected in a single day in France or Spain. Apart from the regional lockdowns, life in China has largely returned to normal. Nevertheless, the zero-COVID strategy is expected to remain in place at least until the Winter Olympics in Beijing in mid-March.

This article has been translated from German.