Living with COVID: Experts divided on UK plan as cases rise

LONDON (AP) – For many in Britain, the pandemic may be over.

The mask requirements have been dropped. Free mass testing is a thing of the past. And for the first time since spring 2020, people can go abroad for holidays without ordering a test or filling out lengthy forms.

This sense of freedom is still widespread as infections spiked in the UK in March, driven by the lighter but more permeable Omicron BA.2 version that is spreading rapidly in Europe, the US and elsewhere.

What the UK situation could do next for other countries as they ease coronavirus restrictions.

France and Germany have seen similar increases in infections in recent weeks, and hospitalizations have climbed again in Britain and France – although the number of deaths per day is well below levels seen earlier in the pandemic.

In the US, more and more Americans are testing at home, so the number of official cases is likely to be much lower. The roster of newly infected people includes actors and politicians, who are tested regularly. Cabinet members, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Broadway actors and governors of New Jersey and Connecticut have all tested positive.

Britain stands by Europe as it dropped all mitigation policies in February, including mandatory self-isolation for those infected. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s conservative government is determined to stick to its “living with Covid” plan, but experts disagree on whether the country is coping well.

Some scientists argue that this is the right time to accept that “living with COVID” means enduring a certain level of disruption and deaths, just as we do for the seasonal flu. Others believe that the UK government lifted the restrictions too early and too soon. He warned that deaths and hospitalizations could continue to rise as people over 55 – who are likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19 – are now becoming infected despite high levels of vaccination.

Stephen Powis, the medical director of the National Health Service, said hospitals are under strain again, both reeling from the virus and sickening large numbers of staff.

“Blinding yourself to this level of damage does not constitute living with a virus infection – quite the opposite,” said Professor of Medicine at the University of Leeds, Stephen Griffin. “Without adequate vaccination, ventilation, masking, isolation and testing, we will continue to ‘live’ with disruption, disease and, unfortunately, death.”

Others, such as Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, are more supportive of government policies.

“We are still not at the point where (COVID-19) is going to be the least harmful … but we are in the worst-case scenario,” he said. Once high vaccination rates are achieved there is little value in maintaining restrictions such as social distancing because “they never ultimately prevent infections, only delay them,” he argued.

Britain’s official statistics agency estimated that around 5 million UK residents, or 1 in 13, had the virus at the end of March, the highest number of reported cases. Separately, a REACT study from London’s Imperial College said its data showed the country’s infection levels in March were 40% higher than the first Omicron peak in January.

The infection rate was so high that airlines had to cancel flights during the two-week busy Easter holiday because many workers were calling in sick.

France and Germany have seen a similar surge in the easing of restrictions in most European countries. More than 100,000 people in France were testing positive every day despite a sharp drop in testing, and the number of virus patients in intensive care rose 22% over the past week.

President Emmanuel Macron’s government, which wants to encourage voting in April’s elections, is not talking about any new restrictions.

In Germany, infection levels have dropped below a recent peak. But Health Minister Karl Lauterbach backed the decision to end mandatory self-isolation for those infected only two days after the announcement. He said the plan would send a “completely false” signal that “either the pandemic is over or the virus has become significantly more harmless than in the past.”

In the US, outbreaks at Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University are rolling back mask requirements on those campuses as officials look for quarantine space.

Across Europe, only Spain and Switzerland have joined Britain in lifting self-isolation requirements for at least some infected people.

But many European countries have relaxed mass testing, which will make it much harder to know how prevalent the virus is. Britain has stopped providing free rapid home tests this month.

Julian Tang, a flu virologist at the University of Leicester, said it is important to have a surveillance program to monitor for new variants and update vaccines, but countries deal with the flu without mandatory restrictions or mass testing.

“Eventually, COVID-19 will settle to become more endemic and seasonal like the flu,” Tang said. “To me, living with COVID should mimic living with the flu.”

Virologist Ravindra Gupta of Cambridge University is more cautious. The death rate for COVID-19 is still far higher than for the seasonal flu and the virus causes more severe illness, he warned. He would have preferred a “more gentle easing of restrictions”.

“There’s no reason to believe that a newer version won’t be more permeable or serious,” he said.

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Geir Moulson and Kirsten Grischber in Berlin, Angela Charlton in Paris, Barry Hatton in Lisbon and other AP journalists from Europe contributed to this report.

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