Spain is calling for Covid-19 to be treated as an endemic disease, like the flu, becoming the first major European nation to explicitly suggest that people live with it.
The idea has gradually been gaining traction and could prompt a re-evaluation of government strategies on dealing with the virus. British Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi Sunday told the BBC that the U.K. is “on a path towards transitioning from pandemic to endemic.”
The omicron variant’s lower hospitalization and death rates despite record infections prompted Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to hold out the tantalizing prospect of Europe moving beyond pandemic-style restrictions on normal life.
“We have to evaluate the evolution of Covid from pandemic to an endemic illness,” Sanchez said in a radio interview Monday, adding that European governments may need to assess the disease with different parameters than ones used so far.
Despite having some of the highest Covid rates in Europe, Ireland will maintain a system of voluntary vaccination, according to Prime Minister Micheal Martin. The Belgian government wants to give people a “free choice,” Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said.
Many countries are shortening quarantine periods as they try to keep essential services operating. The latest is the Czech Republic, which as of Tuesday is requiring Covid-positive people to isolate for five days, down from two weeks.
Travel restrictions have also shown their limits. The U.K. was the first country to ban flights from southern Africa, where omicron was first identified. Yet it was the first place in Europe to suffer an omicron wave. Similarly, France overtook the U.K.’s case rate despite slapping limits on travel from Britain.
The Spanish government has been working on a new monitoring approach in the last weeks, and Health Minister Carolina Darias has brought the matter up with her European counterparts, Sanchez said.
The effort came as Spain reported almost 692,000 new cases in the last seven days, with 13.4% of hospital beds used for Covid patients, according to Health Ministry data. That compares with 13.8% a year earlier, when the number of recorded weekly cases was just above 115,000.
If European countries manage to relax restrictions in the coming weeks, last year’s experiences will remain a cautionary tale. Denmark removed all Covid restrictions last fall, while the Netherlands dropped all masking requirements.