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

LONDON (AP) — For many in the UK, the pandemic may as well be over.

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

That sense of freedom is widespread, even as the number of infections soared in March in the UK, powered by the milder but more transferable ommicron BA.2 variant that is rapidly spreading across Europe, the US and elsewhere.

The situation in the UK could foreshadow what lies ahead for other countries as they ease coronavirus restrictions.

France and Germany have seen similar spikes in infections in recent weeks and hospital admissions in the UK and France have risen again – although the number of deaths per day remains well below levels seen earlier in the pandemic.

In the U.S, more and more Americans are testing at home, so the number of official cases is probably a huge undercount. Among the newly infected individuals are actors and politicians, who are regularly tested. Cabinet members, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Broadway actors, and the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut have all tested positive.

Britain stands out in Europe for ditching 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 in good shape.

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

Hospitals are under renewed pressure, both from patients with the virus and huge numbers of sick staff, said National Health Service medical director Stephen Powis.

“Blinding ourselves to this level of damage doesn’t mean living with a virus infection — quite the opposite,” said Stephen Griffin, a professor of medicine at the University of Leeds. “Without adequate vaccination, ventilation, masking, isolation and testing, we will continue to ‘live’ causing disruption, illness and unfortunately death.”

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

“We are still not at the point where (COVID-19) will be the least harmful… but we are over the worst,” he said. Once high vaccination coverage has been achieved, there is little point in maintaining restrictions such as social distancing because “in the end they never prevent infections, they just slow them down,” he argued.

The official British Bureau of Statistics estimated that nearly 5 million UK residents, or 1 in 13, had the virus at the end of March, the most it had reported. Separately, the REACT study of London’s Imperial College said the data showed the country’s infection levels were 40% higher in March than the first ommicron peak in January.

Infection rates are so high that airlines had to cancel flights during the busy two-week Easter break because too many workers called in sick.

France and Germany have seen similar increases as restrictions were eased in most European countries. More than 100,000 people in France tested positive every day, despite a sharp decline in the number of tests, and the number of virus patients in intensive care rose by 22% in the past week.

The government of President Emmanuel Macron, eager to boost turnout in the April elections, is not talking about new restrictions.

In Germany, contamination levels have fallen from a recent peak. But Health Minister Karl Lauterbach withdrew from a decision to end mandatory self-isolation for infected people just two days after it was announced. He said the plan would send a “completely wrong” signal that “either the pandemic is over or the virus has become significantly more harmless than previously believed.”

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

All over Europe, only Spain and Switzerland have joined the UK in lifting self-isolation requirements for at least some infected people.

But many European countries have relaxed mass testing, which will make it much more difficult to know how widespread the virus is. Britain stopped distributing free rapid home tests this month.

Julian Tang, a flu virologist at the University of Leicester, said that while it’s important to have a surveillance program to check for new variants and update the vaccine, countries can cope with the flu without mandatory restrictions or mass testing.

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

Virologist Ravindra Gupta of Cambridge University is more cautious. Death rates for COVID-19 are still much higher than seasonal flu and the virus causes more serious illness, he warned. He would have preferred a “softer easing of restrictions”.

“There is no reason to believe that a new variant would not be more transmissible or more serious,” he added.

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

Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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