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HEALTH

OPINION: Macron has been proved right so far – and lucky – on lifting lockdown

Hooray! We’re free. Or almost free. After 10 weeks of varied degrees of house arrest, France has returned to something like normal from today, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: Macron has been proved right so far - and lucky - on lifting lockdown
French president Emmanuel Macron pushed for an earlier lifting of the lockdown. Photo: AFP

No more filling in bits of paper to buy a baguette; no more 100-kilometre limit on travel. Bars and restaurants are open, except in the Paris area where drinking and eating is restricted to outdoor terraces.

Hotels, gîtes and camp-sites are open, outside the capital; Paris hotels will open on June 22nd, as will cinemas across the country. All internal EU borders may reopen on June 15th.

READ ALSO What changes as France moves to 'phase 2' of lockdown?

 

Some Paris cafés reopened their terraces at midnight on June 2nd. Photo: AFP

Is that it? Is the threat from Covid-19 vanquished?

Apparently not. The disease still rages in some countries. Our understanding of SARS-CoV-2 – even the most eminent scientists’ understanding of it – remains patchy and contradictory.

A month ago, some of France’s most respected epidemiologists warned that the first phase of the country’s “unlocking” was criminally premature. The virus was still active, they said. A hasty re-opening of the country was certain to cause tens of thousands of new cases and deaths.

That has not happened – not yet at any rate. After three weeks, there has been no new surge of cases and no avalanche of hospital admissions.

The daily Covid mortality rate has dropped from a peak of over 1,000 a day in early April to an average of around 54 a day over the last week.

IN MAPS How the coronavirus epidemic is gradually receding in France

As things stand, it looks as though France may get away without a surge of Covid cases and deaths this summer. Much the same also seems to be true in Italy and Spain and Germany. And, before that, in China.

On the other hand Covid is still spreading in Sweden and Brazil, which never fully locked down in the first place.

Deaths and new cases also remain relatively high in Britain, which locked down late and is reopening early – some say too early.

But some of the greatest French experts said that of France. It was President Emmanuel Macron who insisted that there must be an early unlocking date – against the wishes of his Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe. Macron has, so far, proved to have been right.

Search where you like in the French media, you will find no story stating: “Macron vindicated on early end to lockdown,” I leave readers to imagine the cart-loads of merde that would have been heaped on his head if the death rate had leaped upwards.

Emmanuel Macron and his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe had been at odds over the unlocking date. Photo: AFP

In truth, Macron was lucky. He was right but no one – not even Macron – knows why he was right.

Why has there been no flare-up of the virus since the tightest social distancing measures were dropped? If confinement worked – and it certainly coincided with a huge drop in the death rate – why has the virus not been re-ignited by déconfinement?

Is it because the weather is warmer? That may have had some effect, scientists say, but there is no absolute proof that Covid-19 fades with high temperatures. The virus has, thankfully, not exploded in Africa; but it is exploding in Brazil.

Has the virus just gone through a classic, unexplained peak and fall, as some viruses do? Are the remaining social distancing measures, now habitual (no bises, keep-your- distance) enough to break the infection chain?

Was Covid never so deadly as we were led to believe? Will there be a delayed second wave next winter?

I ask these questions confident that there is no answer to them – or at least no answer generally accepted by the scientific community. There are, of course, dozens of different scientific opinions and hundreds of cocksure answers on social media and in the mouths of opposition politicians.

Almost six months after Covid-19 officially appeared in China (it was almost certainly around before that) we are still grappling with something ill- understood; unpredictable; atypical; deadly, though maybe not quite as deadly as some feared.

In such circumstances, as I have argued before, much of the criticism – not all – hurled at Macron and the French government is exaggerated.

The next phase of France’s Covid blame game is already on its way. I will call it the Day of the Triffids phase.

Could France's 30,000 deaths have been 100,000 without the lockdown? Photo: AFP

At the end of the 1962 movie version of John Wyndham’s classic sci-fi novel, a small band of surviving humans finally stumble on a defence against the predatory, walking veggies which have eaten up most of humanity.

They spray the triffids with salt water and they wither away.

“Is that all?” cinema audiences want to shout. “Why didn’t you b-well think of that that before?”

Here is my “Day of the Covids” prediction for France.

Voices will soon be raised to say “the lockdown was excessive – the disease was not so deadly as billed – the cure was worse than the malady – the threat was not so great as you had us believe.”

Some of the voices will be the same ones who, until a few days ago, were saying the government had “blood on its hands” for locking down too late.

According to Le Monde several ministers have already begun to denigrate the lockdown privately.

“We all went over the top – and not just in France,” Le Monde quoted an anonymous minister as saying at the weekend. “Fear of death,” he said, “and a disturbing aversion to risk…overwhelmed the more important values of liberty and work”.

One or two eloquent voices in the French and British media have made this argument from the beginning (Jean Quatremer in Libération and Peter Hitchens, almost everywhere.) They, at least, are consistent. They may even prove to have guessed right.

But that does not mean that the lockdowns could or should have been avoided. Britain dithered while considering such a laissez-faire approach; Sweden experimented with it. So did the United States and Brazil. The results in none of those country are impressive.

It now looks as though France may “get away with” around 30,000 Covid deaths, compared to 14,000 in a bad ‘flu year. Epidemiologists say that without a lock down that might have been 80,000 deaths or 100,000.

Given the blood-curdling warnings of the majority scientific advice in March, no responsible government in the Facebook/Twitter age, could have taken that risk.

If the “worst” turns out to be not so bad as feared, we should rejoice. We should not blame politicians for failing to know in advance – Day of the Triffid-like – what medical science still cannot say for sure.

Any hope of such political forbearance in France as the inevitable economic crisis follows the health crisis?

None whatsoever.  

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TRAVEL NEWS

Paxlovid, tests and isolation: Covid care for tourists in France

With travel opening up, many people are planning trips to France over the next few months, but the Covid pandemic has not gone away. Here are your questions answered on testing, isolation and medical treatment if you do fall sick while on holiday.

Paxlovid, tests and isolation: Covid care for tourists in France

Travel rules

Covid-related travel rules have mostly been relaxed now but you will still need to show proof of being fully vaccinated at the French border. If you are not vaccinated you will need to show a negative Covid test – find the full breakdown of the rules HERE.

Testing

Once in France if you develop symptoms or you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive you will need to get a Covid test.

The good news is that testing is widely available in France, both for residents and tourists.

The easiest way to get a test is head to a pharmacy, most of which offer the rapid-result antigen test on a walk-in basis Tests are available to everyone who wants one, there is no need to fulfill any set criteria.

For full details on how to get a test, and some handy French vocab, click HERE.

The difference for tourists is that you will have to pay for your test, while residents get their costs reimbursed by the French state health system.

In the pharmacy you may be asked for your carte vitale – this is the health card that residents use to claim refunds. As a tourist you won’t have the card – you can still get the test, you will just need to pay for it. Costs vary between pharmacies but are capped at €22 for an antigen test or €54 for a PCR test.

Isolation

If your test is positive you are legally required to isolate, but how long your isolation period is depends on the your vaccination stats – full details HERE.

Treatment

For most fully-vaccinated people without underlying health conditions the symptoms of Covid are fairly mild, but if you do become ill, here’s how to access medical help while in France.

Pharmacy – one of the first things you will notice about France is that pharmacies are everywhere, just look out for the green cross. As well as selling over-the-counter medication, pharmacies all have at least one fully-qualified pharmacist on the staff who can offer medical advice. 

Take advantage of pharmacists – they train for at least six years so they’re very knowledgeable and they’re easy to access by simply walking into the shop. In tourist areas it’s likely that they will speak English. Pharmacists can also signpost you to a nearby doctor if you need extra help.

Doctors – if you need to see a doctor, look out for a médecin généraliste (a GP or family doctor). There is no need to be registered with a doctor, simply call up and ask for an appointment if you need one. If you have a smartphone you can use the medical app Doctolib to find a généraliste in your area who speaks English. You will need to pay for your consultation – €25 is the standard charge and you pay the doctor directly using either cash or a debit card.

You may be able to claim back the cost later on your own health/travel insurance depending on the policy.

Ambulance – if you are very sick or have difficulty breathing you should call an ambulance – the number is 15. All non-residents are entitled to emergency treatment in France, whether or not you have insurance, but if you are admitted or have treatment you may need to pay later.

READ ALSO Emergency in France: Who to call and what to say

Paxlovid – several readers have asked whether the Covid treatment drug Paxlovid is available in France. It was licenced for use in February 2022 and is available on prescription from pharmacies, mainly for people with underlying health conditions or an impaired immune system. You can get a prescription from a medical practitioner.

The drug is reimbursed for French residents, but as a tourist you will have to pay.

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