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Is Omicron the beginning of the end-emic? Some countries ease COVID restrictions even as infections surge

December 28, 2021, 3:10 PM UTC

The Omicron variant is tearing through country after country, leading to the highest infection rates yet seen in the pandemic. Global COVID infections hit a daily record of more than 1.4 million confirmed cases on Monday.

Many governments have responded by reimposing tighter social distancing restrictions and even going back into lockdown, as the Netherlands did two weeks ago. But some countries have decided that the best response to Omicron is, well, a shrug. These places are choosing to implement looser protocols than in previous COVID-19 waves.

Here are how countries that have decided against tighter restrictions are dealing with the Omicron wave.

England

In England, the government has so far declined to reimpose strict social distancing measures, such as legally barring gatherings of more than six people or requiring restaurants and bars to only offer outside table service. This is despite the fact that the other parts of the U.K.—Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland—have brought in new restrictions. Wales, for instance, has required theaters and cinemas to enforce a two-meter social distancing rule, banned sporting events and other large gatherings, and required bars and restaurants to only serve customers seated at tables.

England has actually loosened restrictions in one respect: It has reduced the period that individuals with COVID-19 must self-isolate from 10 days to seven, provided they are asymptomatic on day six and have negative lateral flow tests on days six and seven.

The United States

Other countries have taken similar steps to ease quarantine. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued new guidance reducing the self-isolation period to just five days for asymptomatic individuals, although it also recommended that people should continue to wear a mask when around others for another five days after that.

The CDC said the new guidance reflected evolving data showing people were most infectious one to two days before the onset of symptoms and up to three days afterward. But in both the U.S. and England, the new rules are also designed to dampen the economic disruption the fast-spreading Omicron virus is causing as droves of infected workers are forced to stay home. In the U.S., many airlines have had to cancel flights owing to their inability to schedule crews, and in the U.K. high rates of absenteeism resulting from health care workers self-isolating has further strained the already stretched National Health Service.

Europe

The Italian government, fearful that its current rules on self-isolation might cause economic paralysis, said it is also considering revising its quarantine requirements. Currently, vaccinated Italians who come into contact with someone with COVID-19 must isolate for seven days and unvaccinated people for 10, even if they don’t test positive or develop symptoms themselves.

Elsewhere in Europe, politicians and health authorities are also modifying their pandemic playbooks in response to Omicron.

In Spain, the government reintroduced a legal requirement to wear masks outdoors. But it also created a number of exceptions, not requiring masks when people were “in a natural setting” or in a group with live-in relatives, or where they could otherwise maintain social distancing. And on Wednesday, the Spanish government’s health committee will decide whether to reduce the quarantine period from its current 10 days, much like the U.S. and the U.K. have done. Only one region of the country, Catalonia, has chosen to reintroduce much stricter rules, such as a nighttime curfew and limits on the capacity of restaurants and other indoor venues.

Bowing to reality

To some extent, the decision to impose looser restrictions for Omicron, despite much higher infection rates than in previous COVID-19 waves, reflects the best scientific evidence: While Omicron is the most transmissible coronavirus variant so far, preliminary data from South Africa and elsewhere seems to indicate that it causes less severe disease than some earlier variants, such as the Delta strain.

Also, unlike earlier in the pandemic, today more people are fully vaccinated, and many have received booster doses as well, which can break the tight connection between infection rates and hospitalizations seen earlier the pandemic. The risk of health care systems being overwhelmed has been the primary driver behind governments deciding to impose lockdowns and other strict social distancing requirements.

But to some degree, the more lenient measures being opted for with Omicron reflect economic necessity: With so many people infected, countries can simply not afford to have so many workers isolating at home. In Italy, Nino Cartabellotta, the head of the Gimbe health foundation, said Monday that unless they were modified, the country’s existing requirements would mean as many as 10 million Italians, one-sixth of the entire country’s population, would have to quarantine.

In some cases, they also reflect political expediency. In the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced a revolt from within his own Conservative Party, including members of his own cabinet, over the need for any further restrictions to combat Omicron. Some members of Johnson’s base see renewed legal obligations as unnecessary impingements on individual liberty.

The prime minister, whose popularity has plummeted owing to a string of scandals, is in a precarious political situation, with many in his own party doubting his leadership after historic setbacks in parliamentary by-elections. He has already had to rely on support from the opposition Labour Party to get current coronavirus restrictions passed through Parliament, and he might face a full-scale revolt from within his party if he tries to implement any stricter requirements.

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