Coronavirus in France: Is the worst over or is this just a ‘summer break’?

It's been more than a month since France's strict lockdown began to be lifted and a second coronavirus wave has yet to hit the country. But epidemiologists warn that it's too early to shelve social distancing.

Coronavirus in France: Is the worst over or is this just a 'summer break'?
Many people have stopped practicing social distancing. Photo: AFP

Before France began to lift its strict, nationwide lockdown in May, epidemiologists predicted that a second epidemic wave would, were it to occur,  begin to show before the end of that same month.

Halfway through June – after five weeks of anxious national monitoring of the Covid-19 infection and death rates – there has not yet been a spike in the number of new cases in France.

IN NUMBERS: What is the coronavirus situation in France now?

Across France many restrictions have been lifted, an international travel within Europe is now allowed again, although people are still advised to practice social distancing and hygiene measures.

This has prompted the question: Is it safe to come out (fully) now?

“Today, the virus is under control in France and its neighbouring countries,” said Antoine Flahault, professor of public health and Director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, which follows the coronavirus development in the world.

“What I cannot say, unfortunately, is that it's game over,” he said.

'People feel like there is no danger anymore'

While the virus seems to have taken a “natural summer break,” it is by no means completely gone.

Daniel Camus, a professor at the Pasteur Institute in Lille which researches the coronavirus in France, said the virus could only be contained if people maintained protective measures such as masks, hygienic practices and social distancing.

“If people stop taking health precautions we could see a resurgence of the virus,” he told The Local.

Masks have been a key health measure for the lifting of lockdown in France. Photo: AFP

Currently, Camus said, there was a big gap between people's perception of risk and the actual level of risk.

“People feel like there’s no danger anymore,” the epidemiologist said, pointing to that France was reporting a continuing decrease of hospital and intensive care admissions and a declining death rate, at the same time as the government was loosening up society again. 

A better way to inform people, Camus said, would be to stop focusing on the number of new hospitalisations and deaths – “these numbers seem very distant for people” – and rather focus on the risk for each person of getting the virus.

“If you knew that for every person you meet, there's an X chance that they might carry the coronavirus and be contagious, you would probably think twice before hosting a big party” he said.

People practicing socially distant sunbathing at a beach in France. Photo: AFP

A second wave?

“To achieve herd immunity, at least 50 percent of the population in a country needs to have had the virus,” said John-Arne Røttingen, who leads the World Health Organisation's quest for a coronavirus treatment, in an interview with The Local.

French health authorities have said France's immunity level is likely at between 10 and 15 percent, but much lower in areas that escaped the worst of the first pandemic wave.

“We must remain extremely vigilant,” said Jean-François Delfraissy, president of the Scientific Council that advises the French government on coronavirus-related measures.

READ ALSO: No return to lockdown in France, even if there is a second wave, says head of Scientific Council

Testing and tracing

One of the reasons the coronavirus contagion got out of control in March was that the French government did not have the capacity to aggressively and extensively test the population, contrary to countries like its neighbour Germany where the government managed to curb the levels of contagion early enough to avoid a full lockdown.

“Countries that tested extensively and early prevented the pandemic from exploding and decreased death tolls dramatically,” Flahault said, pointing to Germany as “one such marvellous example.”

Testing has become the cornerstone of France’s strategy to successively ease the lockdown without provoking a backlash in the number of cases. The government has instructed local authorities to rigorously test inhabitants to nip new cases of contagion in the bud.

So far, authorities have identified 150 clusters across the country.

Drive-in coronavirus testing. Photo: AFP

READ ALSO How France's coronavirus test and trace programme works

Like many other countries, France has also rolled out a coronavirus tracing app, intended to alert people to casual contact with a person who later tests positive, such as fellow Metro passengers or café customers.

READ ALSO EXPLAINED How France's coronavirus tracing app works

Towards more normality

President Emmanuel Macron in his speech to the nation on June 14th announced the lifting of more measures and declared that the whole of mainland France is now a 'green zone' of low virus transmission levels.

Across the country cafés and bars are now fully open along with gyms, swimming pools and tourist attractions and from June 22nd all children will return full-time to school. 

READ ALSO: What can we expect from Macron's announcement?

Flahault said that countries could use the coronavirus “break” to return their societies to more normality.

“If we monitor the virus closely, if we mass-test the population, it could be the time to allow for more risky behaviour,” he said.

But, crucially, France and other countries needed to prepare for what could be yet to come, he said.
“We need to be prepared for a second wave in the autumn,” he said.

Member comments

  1. Just watching the virus expand in the US should be a lesson for the French – be smarter than the Americans!

  2. As we can see, there was a long delay between restrictions being lifted and the virus resurging in China as well (though that has only happened in a few localised hotspots).

    The government has to strike a balance between what is best for them politically, best for the economy and placates the general population so, until a full blown crisis emerges, they are likely to be slightly behind in their reactions and in the advice that they give out.

    Individually the safest course of action is to assume that the virus is circulating and that there will be a natural resurgence in the autumn and winter months (as with other seasonal viruses).

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French public urged to wear face masks again on public transport

With France in the middle of a new wave of Covid-19, the country's health minister has urged the public to once again wear face masks on public transport and in crowded spaces.

French public urged to wear face masks again on public transport

With cases on the rise again, French Health Minister Brigitte Bourguignon said she is “[asking] the French to put masks back on in transport” in an interview with RTL on Monday, 

For the time being, however, she stressed it was just advice, rather than an obligation, and masks have in fact been recommended on public transport since the legal requirement to wear them was lifted in May. 

However with France reporting over 50,000 daily cases of Covid-19 the government is clearly concerned by the current wave of the pandemic.

Bourguignon said that “we must protect ourselves and protect others,” adding that wearing a mask is “a civic gesture.”

She urged people to don their masks as soon as they see a crowded train or station.

READ MORE: Return of the health pass? How France plans to tackle new wave of Covid cases

In addition to public transport, Bourguignon is also asking the French to once again mask-up in “all crowded, enclosed areas.”

Currently, masks are only required in hospitals, health centres and places that have vulnerable residents such as nursing homes. They are recommended in crowded spaces where it is impossible to practice social distancing.