France’s nightclubs reopen for the first time in three months on Wednesday and the Netherlands returns to “almost normal” from next Friday, as European countries continue to lift their coronavirus curbs despite relatively high infection numbers.
Groups may also play to standing audiences in French concert venues, customers in bars and cafes will be allowed to eat and drink while standing at the counter and cinemagoers and train passengers can snack during their film or journey.
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“The skies seem finally to be clearing,” said the French government’s official spokesperson, Gabriel Attal, adding that restrictions “can be lifted according to schedule” but urging people to continue to exercise caution and restraint.
France is due to drop its rule mandating face masks in indoor public spaces that require a vaccine pass, such as restaurants, cinemas and gyms, on 28 February, although the obligation will remain on public transport and in shops.
The health minister, Olivier Véran, said on Wednesday all remaining mask rules could be lifted and vaccine pass rules “significantly eased” by mid-March, “providing infection numbers continue to fall and the pressure on our hospitals permits”.
Nightclubs and bars in the Netherlands can also open until 1am from this Friday, the health minister, Ernst Kuipers, said, before all limits on opening hours are lifted on 25 February. “Young people should be able to unleash their wings,” Kuipers said.
Bars, restaurants and clubs will all return to pre-pandemic opening hours and full capacity for the first time in almost two years from that date. Masks will no longer be required in most places, but will remain obligatory on public transport and at airports, and quarantine for those with Covid-19 will be cut to five days.
“The country will open again,” Kuipers said. But he warned that while the Netherlands seemed “over the peak” and pressure on hospitals was manageable, the pandemic was “not over”: “We can be optimistic, but we also have to be realistic.”
Alpine neighbours Austria and Switzerland on Wednesday also announced they would be dropping most restrictions, including the use of Covid certificates and advice to work from home.
From Thursday in Switzerland, the only remaining requirements in place will be the obligation to self-isolate for five days after a positive test and the wearing of masks on public transport and in healthcare institutions – which are expected to remain until the end of March at the latest.
Austria plans to drop its curbs from 5 March, retaining mask wearing in essential shops, on public transport and in hospitals and other places with vulnerable groups. “The outlook shows us that together we can cautiously and prudently but with determination take back the freedom that the virus took,” said the chancellor, Karl Nehammer.
The decisions follow similar moves by England, Sweden, Denmark and – from Saturday – Norway, all of which have recently lifted almost all coronavirus restrictions after hospital admissions in their latest waves, fuelled largely by the milder Omicron variant, did not rise in parallel with often record infection rates.
Hans Kluge, the director of the World Health Organization’s 53-country Europe region, said this month that vaccine-derived and natural immunity, the arrival of spring and the less severe Omicron variant had opened up the prospect of “a long period of tranquillity” in the pandemic, with a “much higher level of defence” against any fresh resurgence in infection rates.
In Germany, where the Omicron surge began several weeks later than in many European countries, the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, consulted the 16 state leaders on Wednesday to map a way out of coronavirus restrictions as official figures showed new infections beginning to fall.
“We are past the peak of the Omicron wave, pretty much exactly on the day I predicted a month ago,” the health minister, Karl Lauterbach, said on Tuesday, making a “modest loosening” of restrictions possible.
Many German states have already moved to scrap rules preventing people without proof of vaccination or recovery from visiting non-essential stores, and Scholz and the state governors are looking at proposals to gradually drop most restrictions by 20 March bar face masks on public transport and in indoor public spaces.
Germany is also hesitating over plans to introduce a general vaccination mandate this spring, with a growing number of politicians questioning whether the initiative will find a majority in parliament.
Health authorities in Denmark said last Friday they were considering “winding down” the country’s vaccination programme in the spring and saw no reason now to administer a booster dose to children or a fourth shot to any more residents at risk of severe Covid-19.
The Danish health authority said the country’s third infection wave was waning “due to the large population immunity”, meaning “we can cope with increasing infection without getting serious illness”.