The Netherlands has lifted its toughest Covid controls, Denmark is to remove all restrictions within days and France will begin easing curbs next week, as many â€“ but not all â€“ EU countries opt to reopen despite record infection numbers.
The moves come as data shows hospital and intensive care admissions are not surging in line with cases, and after the World Health Organization suggested the Omicron variant â€“ which studies show is more contagious but usually less severe for vaccinated people â€“ may signal a new, more manageable phase in the pandemic.
Dutch bars, restaurants and museums were allowed to reopen on Wednesday after the prime minister, Mark Rutte, said the government was â€œconsciously looking for the limits of what is possibleâ€ as case numbers continued to hit new daily highs.
Intensive care admissions and deaths, however, have been falling in the Netherlands, and the health minister, Ernst Kuipers, said a decision to prolong restrictive measures would have risked â€œharming our health and our societyâ€.
Cafes, bars and restaurants closed since mid-December can now reopen with reduced capacity and until 10pm as long as customers have a Covid pass, with cinemas, theatres, museums and sports events also allowed to welcome the public back.
The Danish government, which two weeks ago allowed cinemas and music venues to reopen after a monthâ€™s closure, also announced on Wednesday plans to scrap remaining domestic coronavirus controls from 1 February. The move â€“ which must be approved by parliament â€“ will allow nightclubs to reopen, restaurants to serve alcohol after 10pm, and shops to lift limits on customer numbers. Vaccine passes will no longer be needed, and commuters may travel without wearing masks.
Like the Netherlands, Denmark has set successive recent daily infection records. But while coronavirus-related hospitalisations have risen, health authorities say 30%-40% of patients with a positive test are in hospital for reasons other than Covid.
â€œThere has been a decoupling in the trend earlier in the epidemic, between increasing infection and increase in Covid hospitalisations,â€ the governmentâ€™s expert advisory panel said. The number of Covid patients in intensive care has nearly halved since early January.
Belgium last week announced a slight easing of its restrictions from Friday despite record infections, with bars and restaurants allowed to stay open until midnight and indoor activities such as play areas and bowling alleys to reopen.
The countryâ€™s current Omicron wave is not expected to peak for a fortnight, but hospital admissions are rising at a far slower rate than infections and the number of patients in intensive care is falling. â€œThe situation is manageable,â€ said the virologist Steven Van Gucht.
France on Tuesday reported a new daily record of 501,635 new cases but, again, while hospital admissions have risen, only about half as many patients are in intensive care as during previous waves, and the number has been falling since 12 January.
The health minister, Olivier VÃ©ran, said the peak of the current coronavirus wave should be reached within the next few days, while the prime minister, Jean Castex, last week announced a timetable for lifting Covid restrictions from 2 February.
Castex said Franceâ€™s vaccine pass, required since Monday to enter restaurants, cinemas and other public venues, would allow audience capacity limits for concert halls and sports and other events to be lifted, with working from home also no longer mandatory for many employees and face masks not needed outside.
Some countries, however, are not yet ready to relax restrictions. Swedenâ€™s health minister, Lena Hallengren, on Wednesday extended pandemic curbs by another two weeks because of â€œan extremely high level of spreadâ€, meaning bars and restaurants must continue to close at 11pm.
In Germany, which on Wednesday reported a new 24-hour record of 164,000 infections, MPs are preparing to debate proposals to either require or strongly encourage vaccination. About 74% of the population has received at least one dose, less than in France, Italy or Spain, but the government is divided over a possible vaccine mandate. Options include requiring all adult residents to be vaccinated against Covid, only those above 50, or merely to mandate counselling for unvaccinated people.
The WHOâ€™s Europe director, Hans Kluge, said on Sunday it was â€œplausibleâ€ the region was â€œmoving towards a kind of pandemic endgameâ€ and that Omicron could have infected 60% of the continentâ€™s inhabitants by March.
Once the current surge is over, immunity through infection or vaccination should last â€œquite some weeks and monthsâ€, Kluge told Agence-France Presse, adding that Covid may come back at the end of the year but not necessarily as a pandemic.
He cautioned, however, that it was still too early to consider Covid endemic. â€œThere is a lot of talk about endemic but endemic means it is possible to predict whatâ€™s going to happen. This virus has surprised us more than once,â€ he said, adding that other variants could still emerge.