Some countries are setting records for daily COVID-19 infections. Others are pursuing sweeping rules to mandate vaccination. But in Denmark, something like normal life has resumed.
After nearly 550 days, the Scandinavian country has lifted the last of its domestic pandemic-era restrictions, declaring that the coronavirus is no longer a “critical threat to society.” Denmark appears to be the first European Union member to issue such a declaration, potentially providing a glimpse into the future of the bloc’s recovery - or serving as a cautionary tale of a nation that moved too quickly.
The country’s leaders have pointed to its high vaccination rates -- among the best in the world, with nearly 75% of residents fully immunized -- as evidence that the step is justified, though they have not claimed herd immunity has been reached. Denmark also has one of Europe’s lowest levels of newly reported infections.
A top Danish health official celebrated Friday’s measure as the beginning of “a whole new era.”
“It is an important milestone in our epidemic management,” Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said in a statement. “This can only be done because we have come a long way with the vaccination rollout, have strong epidemic control and because the entire Danish population has made an enormous effort to achieve this.”
While restrictions on travel to Denmark will remain in place, the government has been gradually easing internal rules for weeks. Last month, authorities ditched the remaining mask mandates for everywhere but the airport. Residents will no longer need to use the country’s digital vaccine passport to enter bars, restaurants, nightclubs or stadiums.
An editorial in one of Denmark’s largest newspapers, Politiken, cheered: “September 10 is a special day, a day of joy. . . . We’re back to normal.”
In neighboring Sweden, there is also talk of impending normality. The government, which drew intense scrutiny over its relatively lax pandemic response, announced recently that it will lift nearly all restrictions at the end of the month.
The two Nordic nations are easing their curbs at a time when other countries are moving in the opposite direction. In Britain, some indoor venues will soon require vaccine passports. In Brussels, the unofficial capital of the E.U., bar patrons will have to prove immunity beginning in October. And in the United States, President Joe Biden on Thursday issued broad decrees that will compel vaccination for roughly 80 million American workers. Taken together, the new rules show the growing concern among world leaders over the delta variant’s rapid spread and the prospect of a winter surge akin to last year’s.
Even in Denmark, health officials have stressed that the restrictions could return if cases and hospitalizations once again rise to dangerous levels.
“Although we are in a good place now, we have not reached the end of the epidemic,” Heunicke, the health minister, said last month.
He has also warned of a resurgence in other seasonal respiratory viruses, which coronavirus measures had mostly quashed, that could add pressure to the health-care system.
Denmark was one of the first European countries to announce an initial lockdown, shutting schools and restaurants and restricting public gatherings on March 11, 2020. Then, a little over a year later, it was among the first countries to roll out a vaccination pass system. Scientists around the world have also praised Denmark’s robust testing and sequencing infrastructure, which gave authorities an early and clear view of new outbreaks and variants.
“A lot of countries, they have had a third wave during this spring, and we haven’t had a third wave,” Tyra Grove Krause, of Denmark’s Statens Serum Institut, said in late July. “I think that has been due to the extensive testing.”
When officials were first made aware of the risk posed by the delta variant, Krause said, they intensified contact tracing, isolating and testing a positive case’s close contacts and those contacts’ close contacts. As more people were vaccinated, Denmark reduced its testing capacity, but it still ranks in the top five countries in the world for tests administered per capita.
Experts have noted that Danes have exhibited extraordinary willingness to receive a vaccine. One study, published in the journal Nature on Thursday and based on a global survey, found that Denmark had one of the highest rates of respondents who said they intend to get vaccinated.
Other research has attributed this vaccine acceptance to a high level of trust in public institutions. Michael Bang Petersen, a researcher at Aarhus University who has advised the Danish government and studied trust and vaccination, said this dynamic is responsible for Denmark’s progress.
“The best predictor in DK - and elsewhere - of vaccine acceptance is trust in the authorities’ management of the pandemic,” Petersen wrote in a Twitter thread. “This trust has been incredibly high and completely stable in DK.”
Even if a third wave of infection hits the country, he said, he’s hopeful that the high degree of trust will continue to keep the disease controlled.
“Will the lifting of restrictions go well? Who knows (as even the DK gov agrees),” he wrote. “New variants may emerge & restrictions reappear. Yet, from a behavioral perspective, I am optimistic about the future.”