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January 26, 2022

Is Europe pivoting to 'living with the virus'?

Daily Briefing

    Great Britain on Monday announced it will lift Covid-19 testing requirements for fully vaccinated travelers and reduce testing requirements for unvaccinated travelers, a move that comes as many European countries transition toward learning to live with Covid-19 rather than eliminating it.

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    Britain changes testing requirements

    British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on Monday said that fully vaccinated travelers will no longer be required to get a Covid-19 test before traveling to England, and unvaccinated travelers "will only need to take a pre-departure test and a PCR test on or before day two after arriving in England." The changes take effect on Feb. 11.

    "Border testing of vaccinated travelers has outlived its usefulness," Shapps said. "Today we are setting Britain free."

    "Of course, we know that Covid can spring surprises," Shapps added. "But everybody now should feel confident about booking holidays and business trips and visits to family and friends abroad."

    Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, "to show that this country is open for business, open for travelers, you will see changes so that people arriving no longer have to take tests if they have been vaccinated, if they have been double vaccinated."

    Travel and tourism companies welcomed the change. Johan Lundgren, CEO of easyJet, said he thinks testing travelers for Covid-19 is a "thing of the past" and said his company is "look[ing] ahead to what we believe will be a strong summer."

    However, Tom Watson, chair of the Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation, said the travel restrictions were lifted too soon.

    "We have consistently backed relaxing unnecessary restrictions, but the only way that our country can avoid hard lockdowns is by maintaining a robust Covid testing regime to quickly discover new variants," Watson said.

    Britain, other European leaders embrace learning to live with Covid-19

    Britain's testing announcement comes after Johnson lifted other coronavirus restrictions earlier this month. On Jan. 19, Johnson announced that face masks will no longer be mandatory in public places, and Covid-19 vaccine passports will no longer be required for large events.

    The government will also no longer advise people to work from home and will consider removing the five-day isolation requirement for Covid-19-infected individuals. He told lawmakers that the pandemic is "not over," but the omicron variant "has now peaked nationally."

    "As Covid becomes endemic, we will need to replace legal requirements with advice and guidance, urging people with the virus to be careful and considerate of others," Johnson said.

    Other European leaders have also announced plans to change Covid-19 mitigation strategies as they see the pandemic moving to an endemic phase.

    Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said he wants the European Union to consider changes aimed at controlling the virus rather than eliminating it.

    "What we are saying is that in the next few months and years, we are going to have to think, without hesitancy and according to what science tells us, how to manage the pandemic with different parameters," Sánchez said. He noted that the changes should not happen before the omicron surge is over, but said officials should start proactively shaping the post-pandemic world now.

    President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa of Portugal, which has one of the world's highest vaccination rates, declared in a New Year's speech that the country had "moved into an endemic phase," though the debate over specific measures has since stalled.

    Similarly, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has advised EU states to adopt "[a] more long-term, sustainable surveillance approach" to Covid-19.

    Immunity produced by vaccines as well as widespread infection allows countries to focus prevention, testing, and illness-tracking efforts on moderate- to high-risk groups, said Salvador Trenche, head of the Spanish Society of Family and Community Medicine.

    Covid-19 "must be treated like the rest of illnesses," Trenche said, adding that he public needs to accept that some Covid-19 deaths "will be inevitable."

    "We can't do on the sixth wave what we were doing on the first one," he said. "The model needs to change if we want to achieve different results."

    "It can't be an emergency forever," said Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, adding that the end of the pandemic is likely to happen in phases.

    Some experts caution the pandemic is not endemic yet

    The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that it's too early to say the pandemic has entered an endemic phase. While there aren't clear criteria for endemicity, WHO's experts have said that phase will come when the virus is more predictable and sustained outbreaks aren't happening.

    "It's somewhat a subjective judgment because it's not just about the number of cases," Michael Ryan, WHO's emergencies chief, said. "It's about severity, and it's about impact."

    "In terms of endemicity, we're still a way off, and I know there's a lot of discussion around that right now," Catherine Smallwood, a senior emergency officer at WHO Europe, said. "Endemicity assumes that there's stable circulation of the virus, at predictable levels and potentially known and predictable waves of epidemic transmission."

    Marco Cavaleri, head of biological health threats and vaccines strategy at the European Medicines Agency, said that "nobody knows when exactly we'll be at the end of the tunnel" when the pandemic becomes endemic.

    "What is important is that we are moving towards the virus becoming more endemic but I cannot say we've already reached that status, so the virus is still behaving as a pandemic," Cavaleri added.

    Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive for NHS Providers, the membership organization for health staff in England, said it isn't "a 100-meter straight-line spring down to the finish line of Covid," but rather "more of a longer-term cross-country run through all sorts of different terrains before we get to that destination." (Gonzalez, Axios, 1/24; Diller, Washington Post, 1/24; Trattner, Newsweek, 1/24; Lawless, Associated Press, 1/24; Parra, Associated Press, 1/20; Specia, New York Times, 1/14; Ellyatt, CNBC, 1/12; Hui, Associated Press, 1/19)

    Learn more: Check out our new omicron surge toolkit

    surgeWe've collected our best resources and insights for creating capacity, supporting staff, communicating with patients, and more. This page will be a consistent work in progress as we compile the newest and most helpful resources. Check out all the resources, including:

    Access the toolkit

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