Norway’s health authority advises caution over easing Covid-19 restrictions

The Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) said on Thursday that it is too soon to consider loosening national coronavirus restrictions, despite a recent drop in cases.

Pictured are people on Karl Johan Street in Oslo.
The NIPH has said that it is too soon to consider lifting Covid-19 restrictions. Pictured are people on Karl Johan Street in Oslo. Photo by Nick Night on Unsplash

Following record daily infection numbers and hospitalisations in mid-December, when daily cases topped 6,000 cases and admissions reached a pandemic high of 383, the government introduced several new coronavirus restrictions, including a national ban on the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants.

Since then, infection numbers have decreased somewhat. The seven-day rolling average on December 30th was 3,377 registered infections per day.

Despite the recent decline in cases, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) said it is too soon to ease any measures.

“The situation is unstable with regard to infections, and when we can ease the measures depends on how quickly the infection spreads,” Frode Forland, director of the NIPH, told broadcaster TV2.

The measures are set to be reassessed on January 14th, and even though the infection trend appears to be declining, it would not be appropriate to examine the measures before this date, Forland told the broadcaster.

“It is right to continue with the (current) measures until we can observe the situation. We have too few figures to say how the infection situation is going with Omicron spreading across the country,” he said.

Forland also said that he expected infections to increase again in the coming months.

“I think it was lucky we did it (introduced measures) before Christmas because now we can see the effect on infection rates. But we still must expect an increase in the number of infections in January and February,” Forland said.

Earlier this week, the Norwegian Directorate of Health warned that a drop in infection numbers could more probably be attributed to fewer people testing for the virus rather than the spread of the disease slowing.

The senior health official added that it would have to become clear that the Omicron variant won’t overrun the healthcare system when dominant in the country for measures to be lifted.

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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.