Europe is slowly starting to consider treating COVID like the flu

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Kevin Whitelaw / Bloomberg News (TNS)

Spain is calling for COVID-19 to be treated as an endemic disease, like the flu, becoming the first major European country to explicitly suggest people live with it.

The idea has gradually gained ground and could prompt a reassessment of government strategies to fight the virus. UK Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told the BBC on Sunday that the UK was “on the path to transition from pandemic to endemic”.

Falling hospitalization and death rates for the omicron variant despite record infections have prompted Spain‘s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to offer the tantalizing prospect of a Europe that goes beyond pandemic-style restrictions on normal life.

“We need to assess the course of COVID from a pandemic to an endemic disease,” Sanchez said in a radio interview on Monday, adding that European governments may need to assess the disease with parameters different from those used until now.

In places like France, Germany, Italy and Romania – which all have the highest average daily case levels in the entire pandemic – it may be a bit early for such discussions. In addition, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday that at present, more than half of Europeans are on the verge of contracting the omicron variant within the next two months.

But as governments strive to keep schools open and economies functioning as normally as possible, a drop in hospitalizations may prompt reconsideration of strategies.

For now, France and Germany continue to tighten restrictions, especially on unvaccinated. French President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants to make the life of the unvaccinated as difficult as possible, and is seeking to set up a vaccine pass to access bars and restaurants, or even to travel by train.

The Netherlands has maintained one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, with restaurants and bars closed. In Italy, the government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi has made vaccines compulsory for people over 50.

“Most of the problems we have today come from the fact that there are people who are not vaccinated,” Draghi said at a press conference in Rome on Monday.

But while vaccinations have been essential in keeping most people with omicron out of hospital, injections have been less effective in stopping the spread of the variant. This leaves politicians trying to figure out how to contain the spread, especially as vocal groups in their countries increasingly oppose limits on restaurants, bars and other activities.

Despite one of the highest COVID rates in Europe, Ireland will maintain a voluntary vaccination system, according to Prime Minister Micheal Martin. The Belgian government wants to give people a “free choice”, said Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

Many countries are shortening quarantine periods as they try to keep essential services operational. The latest is the Czech Republic, which, since Tuesday, has forced HIV-positive people to self-isolate for five days, up from two weeks previously.

Travel restrictions have also shown their limits. The UK was the first country to ban flights from southern Africa, where the omicron was first identified. Yet it was the first place in Europe to experience an omicron wave. Likewise, France has exceeded the UK case rate despite limits on travel from Britain.

The Spanish government has been working on a new surveillance approach in recent weeks, and Health Minister Carolina Darias has raised the issue with her European counterparts, Sanchez said.

The effort came as Spain reported nearly 692,000 new cases in the past seven days, with 13.4% of hospital beds used for COVID patients, according to data from the Ministry of Health. This compares to 13.8% a year earlier, when the number of recorded weekly cases was just over 115,000.

If European countries manage to ease restrictions in the coming weeks, last year’s experiences will remain a cautionary tale. Denmark removed all COVID restrictions last fall, while the Netherlands dropped all masking requirements. Both countries currently have some of the highest case rates in Europe and have reimposed restrictions.