COVID VaccinesReturn to WorkMental Health

From Scandinavia to Spain, Europe is unmasking and moving on from COVID. Here’s who’s relaxing restrictions

February 11, 2022, 10:31 AM UTC
Updated February 14, 2022, 9:59 AM UTC

England’s very last remaining COVID-19 restriction—required isolation after catching COVID—may soon be scrapped as the government attempts to push people back to normal life. And in Europe, England is far from alone in relaxing COVID rules.

The U.K. government originally planned to end the isolation rule on March 24, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday the rule could go away a month earlier provided “the current encouraging trends in the data continue,” he said.

England’s decision to cut the very last COVID-19 measure as cases decline from their Omicron peak follows a growing sentiment across Europe of doing away with COVID restrictions, counting infection numbers, and mask mandates

With the prospect of more variants in the future, European governments are now pushing to a model of living with COVID as an endemic disease like the flu, rather than trying to eradicate it.

In short: Europe appears to be done with COVID—despite a stern warning from World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: “It’s premature for any country either to surrender or to declare victory.”

Not scared in Scandinavia

Europeans are the least likely to say they are “very” or “somewhat” afraid of catching COVID compared with other regions, according to data compiled by YouGov.

So when Denmark became the first country to drop all restrictions, it did so when infections were peaking at the start of February. “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,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said on Feb. 2 as she announced the lifting of restrictions such as mask mandates, the need to present COVID health passes to access public facilities, and the closure of nightclubs.

The relaxation of restrictions spread across Scandinavia, as Sweden and Norway quickly dropped most of their own days later. Sweden scrapped almost all restrictions and testing for COVID-19, with minister of health Lena Hallengren telling Dagens Nyheter COVID would no longer be classified as a danger to society after the winter Omicron surge.

Norway, meanwhile, kept basic social distancing rules in place, but not much else, with curfews and caps on party capacity coming to an end. In all three Nordic countries, masks are no longer mandatory in any environment.

Not further south, either

Mask requirements are being dropped in Southern Europe as well. Italy and Spain both ended most of their outdoor mask mandates this week, only requiring them in crowded areas and in indoor public venues. Spain is also preparing to do away with counting COVID cases, and in early January Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called on the European Union to consider treating COVID-19 as an endemic illness akin to the flu.

In Central Europe, countries are ending the use of COVID health passes. People in the Czech Republic are no longer required to show a vaccine pass to gain access to bars, restaurants, hairdressers, and sports events. The same sentiment is growing in the Baltics as well, as Estonia has said it will end vaccine proof for outdoor events starting next week.

State by state, Germany has been relaxing its COVID rules, as vaccine health passes and curfews end in the North. Next door, the Netherlands has signaled it may soon cease COVID curfews and restrictions, too. 

France announced Friday that on Feb. 28 it will drop its own indoor mask mandate in places covered by the country’s vaccine pass—such as bars, restaurants, and theaters—though masks will still be required on public transportation.

And for its part, Belgium’s Consultative Committee is meeting Friday to determine if and when COVID restrictions can be relaxed.

Ready to reverse course

For the WHO, dropping mask requirements and ending quarantines is premature, as cases of Omicron only peaked in Europe in early February.

“We are asking countries to continue to be cautious and individuals to continue to be cautious as we go forward,” Maria Van Kerkhove of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program said on Feb. 8. “Again, it will not be forever. You will not need to wear a mask forever. We will not need to physically distance forever. But for now, it’s really important that we be careful.”

Still, with vaccines offering better protection against severe disease and COVID fatigue rising, rich and vaccinated European governments are forging ahead with calling an end to the pandemic. The governments doing so, including those of Denmark and Sweden, insist they are prepared to reintroduce restrictions if faced with a new variant.

The question that remains is how difficult it would be for Europeans to return to restrictions after getting used to the freedom. It is a question that worries the WHO.

Sitting alongside Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as the WHO director-general warned it is too early for any country to “declare victory” over COVID, WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan had a warning for countries that drop restrictions: They should be ready to reimpose them with speed.

“If you open doors quickly you better be able to close them pretty quickly as well,” Ryan said.

This story has been updated with France’s newly announced rules and Belgium’s COVID committee meeting.

Never miss a story: Follow your favorite topics and authors to get a personalized email with the journalism that matters most to you.