Europe is slowly emerging from a brutal winter of draconian Covid restrictions as hospital pressures on the continent ease despite record infection numbers from Omicron.
A French ban on nightclubs was lifted on Wednesday as well as limits on sporting events and concerts — three of the key remaining social curbs introduced in December in response to the new variant.
The Netherlands has announced an extraordinary U-turn that will see it lift virtually all virus restrictions next week just a month after coming out of one of the toughest lockdowns in the world.
Alpine neighbours Austria and Switzerland have also unveiled plans to drop most anti-Covid measures in March, with only the isolation of infected individuals and mandatory mask-wearing in vulnerable settings to remain.
Germany will phase out its toughest Covid laws on the country’s ‘Freedom Day’ on March 20, including proof of vaccination to enter shops and supermarkets.
The reopening of the EU follows more dramatic announcements in England, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, where there are plans to abandon all virus-related rules.
Officials have taken confidence from the fact Covid hospital admissions and deaths have remained stable despite astronomical infection levels caused by the milder Omicron variant.
Vaccine passports in one form or another are expected to remain in many EU countries, however, even when social restrictions are released.
EU countries were quick to roll back measures or shut down completely in response to Omicron in December, which sparked violent riots in cities across the continent.
The World Health Organization’s European director has stated that vaccine and natural immunity, combined with a milder variant, means there could now be ‘a long period of tranquillity’ in the pandemic.
France’s nightclubs reopened for the first time in three months on Wednesday night, as well as a ban on standing audiences at concerts and sporting matches.
A rule prohibiting customers from eating or drinking at the counter of pubs and cafes – or snacking in the cinema or on public transport – was also dropped.
Compulsory face masks in restaurants, cinemas and gyms is due to elapse on February 28, but they will still be mandated on trains, buses and taxis and in shops.
France is recording 100,000 new Covid cases per day now after peaking at an unprecedented 500,000 in January.
FRANCE: Young women celebrating on February 16 as France’s nightclubs reopened for the first time in three months
Hospital admissions are also trending downwards and there are a little over 200 daily deaths — compared to 900 at the peak of the first wave in 2020.
France’s health minister Olivier Veran said on Wednesday all remaining mask rules could be lifted and vaccine pass rules ‘significantly eased’ by mid-March if the numbers continue in the right direction.
The country still required people to have a certificate of vaccination to enter public places like restaurants, cafes, cinemas and long-distance trains.
Unlike other countries, a recent positive tests is not enough.
The Netherlands became the first EU nation re-enter a draconian, 2020-esque nationwide lockdown in December in response to the spread of Omicron.
The month-long shutdown saw all bars, restaurants, non-essential shops, cinemas and gyms closed until mid-January, while sporting events were forced to be played without crowds.
Citizens were only allowed four guests in their homes during Christmas period and just two after the festive season.
THE NETHERLANDS: Local residents wait in line to enter a bar in the Witte de Withstraat in Rotterdam, on February 12, as curfews on pubs are set to be scrapped later this month
But just weeks after emerging from the lockdown, the country has announced a complete 180 that will see all social limits and curfews lifted in public places on February 25.
Masks will no longer be required in most places except on public transport and at airports. Quarantine for those with Covid is also being cut to five days.
The fourth wave in the Netherlands is coming down rapidly, with cases halving in the past week to around 60,000 per day. Daily deaths have been stable since early January, and are plateauing at just 13 currently.
Germany announced its intentions to starting phasing out Covid restrictions on Wednesday, with the bulk of measures to be scrapped by late March.
The plan will see measures gradually lifted over three stages — with vaccinated people getting their freedoms back more quickly.
The first step will remove the 10-person limit on private gatherings among vaccinated or recently-infected people. It will also scrap vaccine passports in non-essential shops.
Step two will see the end of a requirement for vaccinated and recovered people to show a negative test to access restaurants, bars and hotels. Currently, only people with a booster shot do not need to take a test.
GERMANY: People shopping in Cologne on February 16 as Germany announced its intentions to starting phasing out Covid restrictions, with the bulk of measures to be scrapped by late March. The plan will see measures gradually lifted over three stages — with vaccinated people getting their freedoms back more quickly
Nightclubs – which have been shut since December – could also open from March 4, although tests for the double and un-jabbed would still be required.
By March 20, measures targeting at unvaccinated people could be lifted. The exact details of the plan have yet to be ironed out, but Germany’s Covid laws are due to expire on that date.
If ministers decide to keep masks or testing in certain spaces, they will need to pass a new law.
Germany’s Covid cases are still stubbornly high with an average of 160,000 being recorded each day. But hospital admissions have been plummeting since the start of the month.
Austria made headlines in autumn last year when it became the first country in Europe to introduce a lockdown solely for the unvaccinated.
While difficult to enforce, it in principle banned people who were not jabbed from leaving their homes for essential reasons from November 15 to January 31.
The country made vaccination legally compulsory this year, making those who refused to get the shot liable for fines of up to £3,000. It will come into force on March 5.
On the same date, Austria plans to drop its remaining curbs for all citizens. Only mask wearing in essential shops, on public transport and in hospitals and care homes will remain – along with isolation rules for Covid cases.
Anti-vaccination demonstrators protest at the Ballhausplatz in Vienna, Austria, on November 14, when the country became the first country in Europe to introduce a lockdown solely for the unvaccinated
Like Austria, from Thursday in Switzerland the only curbs in place will be the obligation to self-isolate for five days after a positive test.
Face masks will be encouraged on public transport and in hospitals – which is expected to remain until the end of March at the latest.
Limits on private and public gatherings will be scrapped and masks will no longer be mandated in schools, shops, concert halls or at work.
SWITZERLAND: Like Austria, from Thursday in Switzerland the only curbs in place will be the obligation to self-isolate for five days after a positive test. Pictured: shoppers in Zurich in December
The Government said the remaining measures are aimed at protecting the most vulnerable, but it has raised the prospect of dropping them if the Covid situation continues to improve.
Health experts declared that Omicron had peaked on February 8, with infections falling steadily since.
A total of 21,032 new cases were reported on Wednesday, with the seven-day average down by almost a quarter in a week.
‘The epidemiological situation continues to develop positively,’ the government said in a statement on Thursday.
‘Thanks to the high level of immunity in the population, it is unlikely that the healthcare system will be overloaded despite the continued high level of virus circulation.’
Denmark became the first country in Europe to lift all domestic Covid restrictions at the start of the month, despite being met by scepticism by many scientists.
Rules on face coverings, vaccine passports and work from home guidance was scrapped as the country moved into unchartered territory. Only self-isolation rules remain.
Commuters at Central railway station in Copenhagen following the removal of coronavirus restrictions in Denmark on February 1 – when the Scandinavian nation became the first country in Europe to release all curbs
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen credited the country’s high vaccination rate for allowing the removal of restrictions, saying the protection the jabs provided would suffice for the far less lethal Omicron variant.
On the face of it, Covid hospitalisations appear to have reached record highs since the opening, while deaths are nearly level with previous peaks and trending upwards.
But the country’s health officials say that soaring tolls are being driven by ‘incidental’ cases – where Covid is not the primary cause of illness.
Sweden — which was the European pariah early in the pandemic for choosing to use voluntary, rather than mandatory lockdowns — scrapped almost all of its few pandemic restrictions last week.
The country has stopped most testing for Covid, except symptomatic cases, and has halted the use of vaccine passes in any venue.
Bars and restaurants can operate curfew-free and with no limits on the number of guests, while attendance limits for larger indoor venues have also been lifted.
People visit one of Stockholm’s busiest shopping streets on February 4. Sweden — which was the European pariah early in the pandemic for choosing to use voluntary, rather than mandatory lockdowns — scrapped almost all of its few pandemic restrictions last week
‘As we know this pandemic, I would say it’s over,’ Minister of Health Lena Hallengren said last Wednesday.
‘It’s not over, but as we know it in terms of quick changes and restrictions it is,’ she said, adding that Covid would no longer be classified as a danger to society.
Sweden’s Health Agency said that mass community testing of asymptomatic people was too expensive to justify being extended.
Following in the footsteps of its Scandinavian neighbours, Norway dropped most of its Covid measures on Saturday — including social distancing, mask wearing and quarantining obligations.
‘The coronavirus pandemic is no longer a major health threat to most of us,’ Norway’s Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said Saturday.
NORWAY: Following in the footsteps of its Scandinavian neighbours, Norway dropped most of its Covid measures on Saturday — including social distancing, mask wearing and quarantining obligations. Pictured: people walking along a pedestrianised zone in Oslo on February 2
‘The Omicron virus causes far less serious illness and we are well protected by vaccines,’ he added.
The one-metre rule in public spaces was scrapped, as were masks. Infected adults no longer have to quarantine if they test positive but are advised to stay home for four days.
The Portuguese Government announced on Thursday that it will scrap most of its Covid restrictions ‘in the coming days’.
Key changes include ending mandatory isolation for close contacts of positive cases, working from home guidance and limits on indoor mixing.
The negative test requirement for major events, sports venues, bars and nightclubs will also be dropped.
The Portuguese Government announced on Thursday that it will scrap most of its Covid restrictions ‘in the coming days’ but outdoor mask-wearing has become a staple for the people of Lisbon
Covid passports are also being abandoned except in hospitals and at the country’s borders. Masks must continue to be worn indoors, including on public transport and in supermarkets.
The government further said that it expects to lift all remaining coronavirus measures within the next five weeks.
Officials have said that bringing the Covid death rate to 20 per 100,000 will be a sign they can safely open up. Currently the rate is around 180 per 100,000.
Belgium has said it will downgrade its coronavirus warning alert from ‘Code Red’ to ‘Code Orange’ later this month.
The switch will mean the current rules mandating WFH will be abandoned — although remote working will still be encouraged and power will ultimately lie with employers.
BELGIUM: The country has said it will downgrade its coronavirus warning alert from ‘Code Red’ to ‘Code Orange’ later this month. Pictured: protesters in Brussels during a demonstration against Covid rules on Monday
Curfews on pubs and restaurants and limits on the number of customers who can mix at the same table will also go, with only staff still needing to wear masks.
Face coverings will no longer be mandatory in any indoor public space but the Government will encourage their use. Nightclubs will also be allowed to reopen.
But large-scale events will be limited to 80 per cent capacity.
Spain still has some of the strictest Covid measures in place in Europe.
The country dropped the mandatory use of face masks outdoors on Thursday, a measure first imposed in May 2020 and reintroduced to fight Omicron.
Masks still have to be worn inside public places such as bars and restaurants, however.
SPAIN: The country dropped the mandatory use of face masks outdoors on Thursday, a measure first imposed in May 2020 and reintroduced to fight Omicron. Pictured: people walking in Madrid on February 1, before the ban was lifted
A one-and-a-half metre rule is still in place in enclosed public spaces and at some large outdoor events, including football matches.
The popular British summer holiday destination has recently dropped its requirement for teenagers to be fully vaccinated to enter the country, but the rule is still in place for adults.
Covid curbs in Ireland are broadly similar to the UK.
Hospitality returned to normal on January 22, as ministers cancelled the 8pm curfew on pubs, allowed nightclubs to reopen and lifted the requirement to show vaccine passports.
People have also been permitted to socialise normally since this date, as social distancing rules, restrictions on the numbers of people able to attend indoor and outdoor events and limits on household visits came to an end.
IRELAND: Ministers lifted a swathe of restrictions across the country last month, cancelling the 8pm curfews on pubs, allowing nightclubs to reopen and lifting the requirement to show vaccine passports. Pictured: maskless shoppers in Dublin on January 22
However, people in Ireland still have to wear masks in shops and on public transport and self-isolate if they have Covid symptoms or a confirmed infection.
And pupils aged six and above are still required to wear face coverings, socially distancing is in place and all children in a class are tested if there are two or more confirmed cases within their classroom.
Finland eased restrictions on hospitality this month, although strict curfews are still imposed and capacity limits are in place.
Restaurants are permitted to operate until 9pm, but are only allowed to seat 75 per cent of the customers they have space for. And bars must stop serving alcohol at 5pm and close at 6pm,
All hospitality venues must also enforce social distancing.
FINLAND: The country eased restrictions on hospitality this month, although strict curfews are still imposed and capacity limits are in place. Pictured: demonstrators in Helsinki on February 4 calling for the end of all Covid curbs
However, there is some variation in hospitality rules between different regions of the country.
But in a glimmer of hope, the recommendation to work from home will be lifted on February 28. Although, health chiefs advise people to keep working from home after this date if they can.
Strict rules are still in place in Italy, with vaccine passports required to sit indoors at restaurants, bars, museums and cinemas, as well as for outdoor activities, such as skiing and sport events.
The over-50s are also required to get a vaccine or face hefty fines.
ITALY: People are also required to wear FFP2 – considered the gold-standard face mask – on public transport. However, the requirement to wear masks outdoors was lifted on February 11. Pictured: people walking near the Colosseum on February 11 without face coverings after the Government lifted the outdoor mask mandate
And capacity is limited to 50 per cent at outdoor venues and 35 per cent at indoor venues.
People are also required to wear FFP2 – considered the gold-standard face mask – on public transport. However, the requirement to wear masks outdoors was lifted on February 11.
However, ministers announced last week that a timeline for the easing of restrictions would be set out in the coming weeks, as Covid measurements continue to trend downwards.