Why Denmark is fully reopening during a massive Omicron wave, according to the expert advising the government

February 2, 2022, 1:18 PM UTC
Updated February 3, 2022, 5:45 PM UTC

On Tuesday, Denmark lifted almost all its COVID restrictions again. But while the move may feel like Groundhog Day—the Scandinavian country dropped all restrictions in September, before reversing its “miscalculation” two months later—this time Denmark is at the vanguard of a European trend.

“We are ready to step out of the shadow of the coronavirus. We say ‘goodbye’ to restrictions and ‘welcome’ to the life we knew before,” said Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen last week, when she announced the lifting of restrictions such as mask mandates, the presentation of COVID health passes when accessing public facilities, and the closure of nightclubs.

The World Health Organization has warned, however, that countries rapidly abandoning COVID restrictions should be prepared to reimpose them at speed.

Denmark’s moves come as the country is experiencing what is by far its worst COVID wave—at least, in terms of case numbers; more than 41,000 infections were recorded Tuesday. Hospitalizations have also just passed their previous peak of late 2020 (though this includes people diagnosed as COVID-positive after being hospitalized for other issues), and deaths are rising, too, but the rate of Danes ending up in intensive care has dropped significantly.

Omicron and vaccines

This decoupling of infection and serious illness seems to be down to two factors: Omicron, the BA.2 “stealth” version of which is now dominant in the country, and Denmark’s very high levels of vaccination (81%) and booster uptake (61%).

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

“While there are high case counts, the pressure on hospitals is lower than in previous waves,” tweeted political scientist Michael Bang Petersen, who advises the Danish government. According to Petersen, this addresses what polling has identified as Danes’ consistently top priority during the pandemic.

In Petersen’s analysis, even older Danes support the lifting of restrictions because the society there has enough trust and solidarity to see people take measures to protect the vulnerable from COVID, even if the rules do not order them to do so. “As lockdowns breed mistrust, it is prudent to relax measures when possible,” he tweeted. (A similar thread of his, from the last time Denmark lifted restrictions, can be found here.)

Petersen told Fortune that the situation for kids less than 5 years of age, who cannot yet get vaccinated, has not featured greatly in Denmark’s debate over lifting restrictions, owing to the rarity of severe COVID infections in that group.

‘A narrative has taken hold’

The Danish approach could be catching on. “We should discuss whether it’s time for us to take a different viewpoint and start unwinding restrictions even with a high number of infections,” said Sanna Marin, Finland’s prime minister, this week.

France has also started lifting some restrictions such as mandates for home-working and outdoor mask-wearing. Ireland, like France, has recently ditched capacity limitations for large venues. Norway has eased some restrictions this week as well. But the Danish example is more comprehensive.

The World Health Organization is not impressed.

“It is premature for any country to either surrender or to declare victory,” said the organization’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Tuesday. “We’re concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines and because of Omicron’s high transmissibility and lower severity, preventing transmission is no longer possible, and no longer necessary. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Mike Ryan, who heads up the WHO’s health emergencies program, put it bluntly: “Those countries who are making decisions to open up more broadly, also need to be sure of capacity to reintroduce measures, with community acceptance, if needed. So as if we open the doors quickly, you better be very well able to close it very quickly as well.”

Petersen told Fortune this would be possible in Denmark, again because of societal solidarity and trust in the authorities.

“The reason why Danes support the lifting of restrictions is not because they are in principle opposed to restrictions,” he said. “We saw in December very high support for imposing restrictions…The reason they now support lifting is because the assessment of the situation has changed.”

“If we see a variant emerge that is virulent, that means pressure is being put on hospitals once again, I cannot imagine that people will not support controlling that variant, including full restrictions.”

This article was updated on Feb. 2 to include quotes from Petersen’s interview.

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