Why this is a crunch week for Covid-19 restrictions in France

Why this is a crunch week for Covid-19 restrictions in France
Some key data will be landing on the health minister's desk this week. Photo: AFP
Christmas data, the 'English variant' of Covid-19 and the vaccination latest - health experts say that this week is key in determining whether France will need to enact stricter health measures.

Since lockdown was lifted on December 15th, health restrictions in France have remained broadly unchanged – a hoped-for reopening of bars, gyms and cultural centres later in January has been ruled out and the only extra restriction put in place has been the introduction of an earlier curfew in 23 of France's 96 mainland départements.

But there are two factors that could change this – a post-Christmas spike and the variant anglais, the new and seemingly more contagious variant of the virus first identified in the UK.

Health experts say that key data on both of these things will be arriving on the health minister's desk this week, influencing what the government does next.

“The week ahead is indeed decisive, in the sense that France is in an extremely unstable epidemiological situation and could fall into exponential growth,” epidemiologist Antoine Flahault told French newspaper Le Parisien.

“This type of growth would once again mean a loss of control over the epidemic which would require in the fairly short term the implementation of new firm containment measures to avoid massive hospital overcrowding.”

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Christmas

Health officials in France have been worried about what they term the 'Thanksgiving effect' – the big spike in cases seen in the USA after people travelled to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with friends and family.

In France the lockdown was lifted just before Christmas and people were allowed to travel over the holidays, although restrictions including an 8pm curfew remained in place and people were advised to limit private gatherings to six people.

Nevertheless there is concern that increased travel and socialising will lead to a spike in cases.

Statistics from over the holiday period fluctuated with lower reporting on weekends and public holidays and cumulative case numbers reported on several days. Testing saw a big increase in the week before Christmas – three million people were tested in a single week, the highest number of tests done so far – but fell over the holiday period, leading to variations in the positivity rate.

READ ALSO The numbers and graphs that explain the latest Covid-19 situation in France

 

French schools reopened on January 4th, and most people went back to work on the same date so the Health Ministry now has a week's worth of 'normal' data that will establish what, if any, effect Christmas has had on case numbers.

Overall, the weekly average for case numbers last week was 15,859 new cases per day, compared to 13,258 the previous week, although this hides big regional variations and an increasingly concerning situation in some parts of eastern France.

The 'British mutation'

A new and potentially more contagious variant of the Covid-19 virus first identified in the UK is also causing concern across Europe.

France has identified several clusters of the mutation, including in Paris, Brittany and a group in Marseille reported to be an extended family.

Laboratories have stepped up genetic sequencing of PCR tests to get a clearer picture of how many cases there are in France and the country's UK border remains closed to non-essential travel 'until further notice'.

Anyone entering France from the UK needs a negative Covid test, but there are concerns that the new variant was already spreading in the country before extra testing requirements were introduced.

“There are certainly many more cases. A thousand, or even several thousand, in France at the moment,” said epidemiologist Pascal Crépey.

A study by the National Reference Centre for Respiratory Viruses in Lyon, expected at the beginning of the week, will make it possible to estimate the number of cases in France.

The mutation does not seem to produce more serious symptoms, but is said to be more infectious, potentially leading to more cases and the saturation of health services.

Vaccines

France will continue to speed up its vaccination programme after a sluggish start that was widely criticised. From Thursday, people over 70 will be able to make appointments by phone or online at sante.fr, with appointments starting on January 18th.

The first deliveries of the Moderna vaccine arrive in France on Monday and by Wednesday will available in clinics in the eastern parts of the country that have been hardest hit by the virus.

However, the vaccination programme will not have a direct effect on case numbers over the next few weeks, so will not play a major part in decisions on extra restrictions.

What next?

The French government is holding several meetings this week to analyse the latest data and weigh up its options. 

A meeting focused on the vaccine rollout will be chaired by President Emmanuel Macron on Monday, followed by a meeting the Defence Council – which decides on health restrictions – on Wednesday.

Also expected this week is the latest report from the advisory Scientific Council, dealing with proposed measures over the next three months.

An announcement from the Prime Minister is expected towards the end of the week.

There are reports the government is considering tightening the curfew across the country so it begins at 6pm, as is already the case in numerous hard-hit départements. On Monday the PM Castex said the government could not rule out a third national lockdown but that it wasn't on the cards for the moment.

All options – from closing shops and schools to a reintroduction of lockdown – will be on the table.

“This week we're really going to get into the tough stuff. We can see this clearly with the number of infections which is increasing, more than 20,000 per day since last weekend”, an unnamed Health Ministry official was quoted as saying in the French press, adding that “if there are important decisions to be made, it will be now.” 

 

 

 

 


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