Covid-19 is no longer an international public health emergency, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared, but governments are warned not to let their guard down.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general, made the announcement this afternoon at a press conference streamed live from the organisation’s headquarters in Geneva.
“With great hope I declare Covid-19 over as a public health emergency”
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
The move does not mean WHO no longer deems Covid-19 a disease of interest or concern, and Dr Tedros said the organisation would continue to issue recommendations for managing the disease to its member governments.
Dr Tedros said: “1,221 days ago, WHO learned of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, China.
“In January, 2020, I declared a public health emergency of international concern about Covid-19.
“For more than a year, the pandemic has been on a downward trend with population immunity increasing thanks to vaccination and infection and mortality is decreasing, and the pressure on health services is easing.
“Yesterday, the WHO’s emergency committee met for the 15th time and recommended I end the public health emergency.
“I have accepted that advice, and it is therefore with great hope I declare Covid-19 over as a public health emergency.”
Dr Tedros added, however, that this did not mean Covid-19 had stopped being a threat to health across the world, and said “the worst thing” a country could do now was let its guard down.
He further said that he would not hesitate to reconvene the emergency committee should Covid-19 begin to pose an international threat again.
“It means it’s time for countries to transition from emergency to managing Covid-19 alongside other infectious diseases,” he said.
According to Dr Tedros, a person died of Covid-19 every three minutes in the last week, on average, with millions continuing to live with long Covid, including many UK healthcare staff who worked on the front lines.
At the time of the WHO’s declaration of Covid-19 being an international health emergency, there were fewer than 100 cases outside of China and no reported deaths.
“We can’t just use technology to get out of the mess we’re in”
Since then, Dr Tedros continued, Covid-19 “turned our world upside down”, causing nearly seven million reported deaths – with the real figure possibly higher.
Dr Tedros went on: “But Covid-19 has been so much more than a health crisis. It has caused severe economic upheaval, disrupting travel and trade, shattering businesses and plunging millions into poverty.
“It has caused severe social upheaval, with borders closed, movement restricted and millions experiencing loneliness, isolation, anxiety and depression.
“It has exaggerated political fault lines, eroded trust between people and governments – fuelled by a torrent of misinformation and disinformation.
“Covid has laid bare the searing inequalities of our world.”
He called on governments to not dismantle pandemic response systems built up during the emergency period, and to instead use the lessons learned when they were caught off-guard by Covid-19 to prevent another disaster in future.
WHO executive director Dr Michael Ryan agreed, and said governments across the world needed to be more prepared for next time something like Covid-19 happened and must address “inequities” in their systems.
Dr Ryan said: “We are constantly in crisis mode. We can’t just keep responding and responding, we have to start preparing.
“We saw people bartering for oxygen cannisters in the streets of major cities. This is the 21st century – is that what we want to witness in the next pandemic?
“There were family members physically fighting to get loved ones into a hospital bed. We saw people die before they got to the emergency room because they were waiting in a car park.
“That is the reality of our health systems, that is the reality of our preparedness. We can talk about all the technologies we want, but we can’t just use technology to get out of the mess we’re in.
“There are huge inequities between countries and within countries, so we have to address everything – technology, how we govern, our systems, how we finance.”
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead for Covid-19, said the transition from international emergency to the lower threat level was not made in a split-second, and rather had come after months of talks.
“We don’t want to see systems shut down,” she said. “We don’t want to see people laid off, labs close. But we have to calibrate what was done in the crisis point where everything was focused on Covid.”
The UK Government relaxed all of its Covid-19 rules in spring 2022, and free testing has been over for more than a year.
However, NHS England has continued to offer booster shots and the vaccination drive in Britain has not concluded.
Earlier today, NHS England announced that it had delivered more than two million Covid-19 boosters in just over a month.
The Department of Health and Social Care has been contacted for comment on the WHO’s declaration.