On January 19, 2022, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the end of the prevention measures related to the COVID-19. “Many nations across Europe have endured further winter lockdowns … but this government took a different path”, he said. “Our scientists believe it is likely that the Omicron wave has now peaked … because of the extraordinary booster campaign, together with the way the public has responded to the Plan B measures, we can return to Plan A”.
As of January 27, the British’s COVID-19 prevention policy underwent several changes: in crowded areas, the British government “will trust the judgment of the people”, and will not make face mask in public areas compulsory, though it recommends people continue to wear it. People are no longer required to work from home, and allow employers to decide it. In addition, mandatory COVID-19 passes will not be needed to gain entry to large-scale events. The British government also decided that from January 20, face masks are no longer be obligatory in schools, and law on “self-isolation” will expire on March 24.
While the COVID-19 is still spreading around the globe, the decision announced by Johnson is undoubtedly a bold move. Some scientists have warned that infections could still rise again if people’s activities quickly return to normal. A British virologist said that, there is no guarantee that infection levels will continue to fall as they are now, and given that cases are still high, a more incremental approach should be taken. That said, he expressed his understanding that such adjustments are needed to for economic reasons, and people want to get back to normal life.
One reason for the UK’s decision is that there is no effective way to deal with the faster-spreading Omicron variant. Another reason is that the number of new infections in the UK has continued to decline, and more importantly, the number of hospitalizations and deaths in the UK has not risen with the higher number of cases. On January 19, there were 107,500 new confirmed cases in the UK and 359 deaths. In the past week, new confirmed cases in the UK have fallen by 38.9%. But the number of new deaths jumped 14.7% in the past week. Another important reason is economic pressure. Continued prevention and control has caused the British economy to come under enormous pressure.
Although the UK’s move is regarded as daring, some new changes are indeed worthy of attention when observing the spread and pathogenic characteristics of the Omicron variant.
Compared with the Delta strain, the Omicron variant strain has some new characteristics. For example, the viral load in the early stage is very low, it is not easy to be detected, or at times it is not detected at all. On the other hand, after the incubation period of the virus, it could be detected but the infected person would mainly experience mild symptoms or even be asymptomatic. This feature can explain why the test reports of foreign passengers before boarding to China were all negative. However, after traveling to China for a few days, they were found to be infected. More and more similar imported cases like these have been reported. Jin Dongyan, a professor at the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Hong Kong and an expert in virology, said compared to the Delta virus, the Omicron virus is more contagious, harder to detect, yet it also shows lower fatality.
This has caused some countries to opt for coexisting with the virus if infection cases have passed their peak. The disease is mostly mild or even asymptomatic, and there is a low hospitalization rate and a declining case fatality rate. British Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi publicly called for the relaxation of preventive measures on January 9. The point was to adopt the transition path from “pandemic” to a direction similar to “endemic”, making the UK to become one of the first major economies in the world to live with the virus, which is also a policy gamble to some extent.
Researchers at ANBOUND would like to point out that the UK government’s announcement to ease prevention and control measures is a vital sign. There will be significant differences in global pandemic prevention policies and measures, and the number of countries with disparities these approaches will grow in the future. We believe that, in the future, there will be two main strategies to deal with COVID-19. One strategy is “coexisting with the virus”, which will be accepted and adopted in the United States and Europe, and may become the approach taken by most countries. The other is “dynamic clearing” and strict measures, mainly adopted by China. If the Omicron variant continues to replace Delta as the dominant variant, along with a significant decrease in the virus’s fatality rate, its impact on health will be reduced to that of influenza. If the situation develops to this point, more and more countries in the world will adopt the strategy of “coexisting with the virus”. China on the other hand, would definitely continue adhering to the strict prevention and control measures that have been proven effective before, carrying on its goal of dynamic clearing.
From the perspective of China’s COVID-19 prevention practice, it is difficult for it to understand the UK’s loosening policy particularly when it risks causing the spread of the infections, which might increase the number of deaths. In China’s view, it is a very reckless and irresponsible policy. However, as the characteristics of the pandemic change, particularly the degree of disease and the fatality rate, relevant policies cannot remain static. For China, as the situation changes, two points need special attention: First, if most countries choose to relax prevention and control to boost their economies, then “coexisting with the virus” will become the mainstream policy for global practices. At this time, China, which chooses to implement “dynamic clearing”, will become a minority. Long-term high-standard strict prevention and control will become a policy barrier that separates China from the rest of the world. Second, as the international economy recovers from the pandemic, the socioeconomic cost of strict prevention measures will rise, which will be very detrimental to China’s participation in the global economy’s recovery. For example, China’s recent “super circuit breaker” measures have greatly reduced international flights to and from China, and nearly all flights between China and the United States have been halted.
In the face of changes in the pandemic situation, combined with dynamic shifts such as the transmission characteristics of Omicron, hospitalization rate, and fatality rate, we suggest China to strengthen its follow-up research. Based on scientific facts, it is necessary to study whether the prevention and control policies and goals should be adjusted, so that the economic and social development will return to normal. This is to ensure the balance between COVID-19 measures and the country’s economic growth can be achieved. If the pandemic eases but China’s strict control policies remain unchanged, then this will restrict the normalization of the country’s socio-economy. On the basis of close tracking and scientific research, in practice, China can consider taking steps in policy adjustment. After the Winter Olympics and the national “Two Sessions”, the country’s COVID-19 prevention and control can be relaxed. After the CCP’s 20th National Congress, it can be further relaxed. In this process, on the one hand, China should strengthen the research on COVID-19 treatment medications, and on the other hand, it needs to closely observe the development and changes of the pandemic situation.
Final analysis conclusion:
Overall, the global COVID-19 situation is changing as the low viral load Omicron strain becomes dominant. If the impact of novel coronavirus on health and society is reduced to the level of influenza, China may need to consider amending its prevention and control strategies and policies. With major divisions in global pandemic strategies, it needs to prepare in advance for possible changes in the future.