Europe begins to lift COVID-19 restrictions, but WHO calls on countries not to rush
NUR-SULTAN. KAZINFORM - Over the past month, several European countries announced they would start lifting most coronavirus-related restrictions as vaccination and booster programs show success coupled with declining infections. The World Health Organization (WHO), however, called on the governments not to rush with lifting the restrictions. More about the European countries’ move to drop COVID-19 rules is in the latest analytical article of Kazinform.
According to the WHO weekly epidemiological update, during the week of February 7 to 13, the global number of new COVID-19 cases decreased by 19 percent, but the number of new deaths remained stable. Globally, there are over 420 million confirmed cases and over 5.8 million deaths.
Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are among the first countries to lift COVID-19 curbs.
In Germany, the government announced a three-stage plan to relinquish the rules. Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Friday that the decision was taken given the developments in the pandemic.
«The way the pandemic is developing allows us to consider initial steps to ease restrictions,» said Scholz. «But we must continue to be vigilant and protect those who are most vulnerable. The last thing we want is to jeopardize the success we have achieved to date.»
As of February 16, Germany has reported 235,626 new laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases as well as 261 new deaths associated with COVID-19.
Since December 2020, more than 168 million vaccine doses have been administered in Germany. Overall, 76.2 percent of the population in Germany has been vaccinated at least once. 75 percent have received a full course of vaccination against COVID-19, while 55.9 percent have received a booster vaccination.
«The Covid-19 rules are having the desired effect. The number of infections is high but is no longer increasing. We can now withdraw the restrictions step by step, but we should continue to be careful. We deserve it to get better,» tweeted the Chancellor.
The first stage implies the lifting of the restrictions on private indoor meetings for vaccinated and recovered people. The previous limit was ten people.
Negative test results or proof of vaccination will no longer be needed to visit non-essential stores, but masks will remain a rule.
The second phase will start on March 4, including allowed visits to restaurants for unvaccinated people (negative test or proof of recovery is needed), and increase in the maximum permitted size for outdoor events to 25,000 people.
All other restrictions are to be dropped by March 20 if the situation allows, according to the German government.
The United Kingdom, where the number of daily cases reaches close to 52,000, also lifted most of its coronavirus restrictions explaining with the success in the vaccination program and declining Omicron infections.
From January 27, the UK removed all restrictions on mask-wearing in indoor venues, mandatory COVID-19 certification, and work from home.
«As we learn to live with COVID, we need to be clear-eyed that this virus is not going away. So, if you haven’t already, please come forward for your first, second, or booster jab,» said UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid.
Starting February 11, fully vaccinated passengers arriving in the UK will no longer need to get tested. Those who are not fully vaccinated will need to present a negative PCR test before departure and also take a test on or before Day 2 after they arrive in the UK.
«The UK has eased international travel measures for COVID-19 and now has one of the most free-flowing borders in the world – sending a clear message that we are open for business,» said UK Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps. «As our travel sector rapidly recovers, and we accelerate towards a future where we want to travel to remain open for good, these rule changes coming ahead of half-term are good news for families, businesses and the travel sector.»
From February 11, Kazakhstan will be on the list of countries, whose COVID vaccine passports are recognized by the UK, but Sputnik V is not recognized as an approved vaccine.
This month, the Netherlands also plans to lift most coronavirus-related restrictions in three stages. The first stage began on February 15 with the cancellation of the recommendation to receive no more than 4 visitors a day.
The second stage from February 18 will allow all locations to stay open until 1 a.m. Until February 25, the government will still require the coronavirus entry pass (either negative test, proof of vaccination or recent recovery) to visit restaurants, bars, cinemas, theaters, but visitors will no longer need to follow the rules on assigned seating, wear a mask and keep social distance, except for locations with more than 500 people.
The opening times will return to normal starting from February 25 – the final stage – that will include lifting of a coronavirus entry pass requirement to visit venues with fewer than 500 people.
Indoor venues that accommodate more than 500 will require everyone to show a negative test result.
The changes will also apply to international travel from February 25, as the Dutch government lifts the requirement for travelers arriving in the Netherlands to self-quarantine, but will still be required to have a negative test result to enter the country.
Over the past week, the Netherlands reported 482,695 positive coronavirus tests, which is 22 percent less than the week before. The number of new hospital admissions also decreased by 18 percent.
86.4 percent of people aged 18 have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while 61.3 percent have been fully vaccinated and have received a booster vaccination against COVID-19.
On February 17, Kazakhstan also announced its decision to lift some of its restrictions. The interdepartmental commission working to prevent the spread of coronavirus infection cancelled mandatory PCR tests for citizens of Kazakhstan entering the country. The rule applies to citizens who have received revaccination or a full course of vaccination against COVID-19 dated no more than six months since the second dose.
At the same time, foreign nationals whose countries mutually recognized vaccination passports with Kazakhstan, are allowed to enter the country without a PCR test.
Citizens who had contacts with an infected person will not need to isolate in the absence of disease symptoms.
Business and facilities located in the green and yellow risk zones from now on do not have occupancy restrictions, while for regions in the red zone, maximum occupancy is 70 percent. This applies to shopping malls, retail chains with an area over 1,000 square meters, swimming pools, gaming clubs, nightclubs, karaoke, exhibition venues, family events, conferences and forums. Companies can also return to work in offices.
Since the start of the global pandemic, Kazakhstan reported 1.3 million coronavirus cases and more than 87,000 cases of coronavirus pneumonia, which shows signs of COVID-19, but not clinically confirmed, according to coronavirus2020.kz. Kazakhstan also had 13,519 deaths since the pandemic began.
In his statement last Friday, WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr. Hans Kluge urged the governments not to rush with their decisions to drop restrictions.
«Faced with the Omicron tidal wave, and with Delta still circulating widely in the east, this worrying situation is not the moment to lift measures that we know work in reducing the spread of COVID-19. These include avoiding closed, confined, or crowded locations, wearing masks when with other people indoors, improving ventilation where possible, using rapid tests to identify cases early, and making sure that health systems are well prepared to provide evidence-based treatments that we now know can reduce severe disease and death,» he said.
What should be done instead, he noted, is boost vaccine coverage, help people to minimize the risk of infection, increase access to evidence-based treatments, and extend support to health systems.
Concern over economy
While successful vaccination and booster campaign have been decisive in lifting the restrictions, most countries remain concerned over the continued adverse impact that COVID-19 had on their economies. For many, prolonging these restrictions would kill already struggling businesses.
According to Maarten Verwey, Director General for DG Economic and Financial Affairs at the European Commission, and Allen Monks, an economist at the European Commission, in 2020, the pandemic caused real GDP to fall by 6.1 percent, more than during the global financial crisis.
Though the policies, successful vaccination, and easing of restrictions helped the economies begin their recovery in spring 2021, there are still certain challenges, including those that were exacerbated by the pandemic.
«The COVID-19 crisis has aggravated a number of pre-existing vulnerabilities. Internal imbalances related to high government and private debt have increased, driven by the recession and measures taken to address the COVID-19 crisis. Pre-pandemic dynamic house price trends persisted and mortgage debt continued to grow significantly in some countries. (…) Moving forward, new risks may emerge as a result of structural transformations accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis,» they wrote in their article.
Article by Assel Satubaldina