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EXPLAINED: What’s France’s plan if there’s a second wave of coronavirus?

The French government said Wednesday it is preparing for a second wave of COVID-19 cases that could emerge in the coming months, but will not respond with another nationwide lockdown to contain the outbreak.

EXPLAINED: What's France's plan if there's a second wave of coronavirus?
AFP

“My aim is to prepare France for an eventual second wave, while preserving our daily life, our economic and social life,” new Prime Minister Jean Castex said in an interview on RTL television.

“But we're not going to impose a lockdown like the one we did last March, because we've learned… that the economic and human consequences from a total lockdown are disastrous,” he said.

Instead any business closures or stay-at-home orders would be “targeted” to specific areas, he said.

“The coronavirus is still here,” Castex warned, adding that he would travel Sunday to France's South American territory of French Guiana, which is reeling from a surge in cases.

Officials reported 124 new cases in the territory on Tuesday, bringing the total to nearly 5,200, and the government has dispatched dozens of health workers from the mainland to reinforce hospital staff.

New Prime Minister Jean Castex. Photo: AFP

Speaking earlier this year Jean-François Delfraissy, president of the Scientific Council convened by the French government to advise on coronavirus-related measures, also laid out a strategy for dealing with a second wave.

 “The Scientific Council, what we are saying is: whatever happens, we will not be able to redo a generalised lockdown in France, Delfraissy told Le Parisien newspaper.

“The first time, it was essential, we had no choice, but the price we have to pay is too high.

“The population would certainly not accept it, the economic consequences would be major and, even from a health point of view, this is not desirable – do not forget that, apart from Covid, there were all the other patients who had delays in diagnosis during this period.”

However some areas could see the return of lockdown measures if they show a 'cluster' of cases, he said, adding:

“I am firmly convinced that if it starts up again, it will start up again in the Paris region.”

'We must remain vigilant'

France is now operating a test and trace strategy, where everyone who tests positive gives a list of their contacts to health authorities, and those people are then contacted and tested.
 
 
After some delays, it has also now rolled out its 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.
 
 
Although there is a lack of scientific consensus, many believe that the virus will recede during the summer months, but that raises fears of a 'second wave' of cases in the autumn.
 
Delfaissy said: “If we look at the history of major pandemics of respiratory viruses, we see that eight out of ten regress spontaneously in European countries during the summer.
 
“On the other hand, you have five out of ten that recur in the autumn.
 
“We must remain extremely vigilant.”
 
The head of France's national health agency, Jerome Salomon, said authorities were anticipating a second wave of COVID-19 cases “this autumn or this winter,” depending on a seasonal impact that remains uncertain.

“What we have to understand is that the epidemic's resurgence will basically depend on our behaviour,” he said in an interview with the Figaro newspaper.

Even as millions of people prepare to relax over the summer holiday seasons, Salomon urged continued social distancing and the use of face masks, “especially in crowded places and indoors.”

'We are going to protect people'

Jean Castex was named by President Emmanuel Macron last week to lead a new government tasked with orchestrating the country's recovery from its worst health and economic crisis since World War II.

Billions of euros have been promised for investments as well as measures to limit job losses in an economy expected to shrink around 10 percent this year.

“We are going to protect people, but above all we are going to invest in the ecological transformation, in our country's recovery,” Castex said.

He also confirmed he had increased a proposed wage hike and budget boosts for hospital staff by around €1 billion in negotiations with unions this week, bring the total envelope to €7.5 billion.

But union leaders say that would lift monthly pay for nurses, technicians and others on the front lines of the coronavirus fight by only 180 euros a month, far short of demands for a €300 raise.

The outbreak has killed nearly 30,000 people in France since the first cases were reported in January.

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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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