France's Defence Council, the group of key ministers who decide on what health restrictions to impose, met on Wednesday morning to discuss whether a third lcokdown is necessary.
Speculation has been raging in France ever since the Journal du Dimanche – a newspaper often used by the government to introduce new policies or ideas – ran a front page saying that a third lockdown was imminent and Macron would be addressing the nation again this week.
Les unes du JDD (à Paris et partout ailleurs). Excellente lecture et bon dimanche. pic.twitter.com/u7kgjQTWN4
— Le JDD (@leJDD) January 23, 2021
The head of France's advisory Scientific Council Jean-François Delfraissy also spoke on TV saying a third lockdown “will probably be necessary” and this is the key week for making decisions.
However, speaking after the meeting on Wednesday, government spokesman Gabriel Attal said a decision would not be taken immediately.
He said that president Emmanuel Macron had asked ministers to study several different scenarios, but added that the president wanted to see data from two full weeks of the 6pm curfew to fully asses what impact it was having.
Attal said that the earlier curfew seemed to be “slowing the circulation of the virus, but not enough to be considered fully effective”.
The 6pm-6am curfew was introduced across mainland France on Saturday, January 16th, although some areas in eastern France has imposed the measure earlier.
Analysing two weeks of curfew data would therefore push a decision on lockdown past Saturday.
Attal said that the president wanted to see full scientific and economic impact studies on various different options, which range from “maintaining the current framework, which is unlikely, to very strict lockdown”.
There will also be consultation with parliament and unions in the days to come.
Curfew and new variants
So far, the national case numbers are continuing with the slow but steady rise that has been in evidence since December with no immediately apparent effect from the 6pm curfew.
In several of the areas of eastern France that had the 6pm curfew imposed earlier, case numbers initially fell and then rose again. The département of Alpes-Maritime, which contains the city of Nice, now has the highest incidence rate in the country despite being under a 6pm curfew since January 2nd.
The other thing the Council was looking at is the progress of the new variant of the Covid virus first discovered in the UK.
Scientific modelling predicts that this more contagious variant will be dominant in France by March and data from hospitals in the greater Paris Île-de-France region from the last two weeks shows that 10 percent of confirmed Covid cases are the variant anglais.
Health experts fear an explosion of cases and deaths as seen in the UK, which yesterday became the first European country to record a 100,000 death toll.
Infections and hospital occupancy
The Council was also looking as usual at case numbers and the situation in hospitals.
The weekly average rate of new cases now stands at 20,000 cases per day, up from 12,000 per day when lockdown was lifted on December 15th. When the second lockdown was imposed on October 30th, daily case numbers stood at 50,000.
Case numbers have seen a slow but consistent rise over the last six weeks, but France appears to have avoided a 'spike' in cases connected to travel and socialising over Christmas.
Of more concern is the situation in the country's hospitals. On Monday, the number of Covid patients in intensive care topped 3,000 for the first time since December 10th.
Over the past two weeks the intensive care occupancy rates have jumped from 50 percent to 60 percent and hospitals in the east of the country, where case numbers are highest, are under severe pressure.
Macron must also consider the public mood in France, where discontent over the idea of a third lockdown has grown in recent days.
So far France has managed to avoid the mass demonstrations against lockdown seen in the USA, UK and Germany or the anti-curfew riots seen this week in the Netherlands, however this week the hashtags #jeneconfineraipas (I will not be confined) and #jemereconfineraipas (I will not re-confine) have been circulating on social media along with increased anti-lockdown comments.
A poll for TV channel BFM showed that 52 percent of people would be against a strict lockdown like the one seen in March, but 52 percent of people would be in favour of a third lockdown along the lines of the October lockdown, which was less strict and saw schools remain open.
Parents will also be looking ahead to the February school holidays, which begin in some areas on February 6th, and wanting information on whether they can make travel plans or not.