Speaking during the regular Thursday evening health briefing, Olivier Véran said “this is no time to relax” adding that the next couple of weeks would be key in determining whether the existing restrictions are enough to contain the spread of the new variants.
He also announced that France's quarantine period is extended from 7 days to 10 over fears that patients with the new variants remain contagious for longer.
L’heure n’est au relâchement ni de nos efforts, ni de notre vigilance : le couvre-feu, la limitation des contacts, notre capacité à tester et à casser les chaînes de contaminations limitent la flambée épidémique. Il faut poursuivre dans cette voie et tenir ensemble.
— Olivier Véran (@olivierveran) February 18, 2021
The percentage of Covid patients in France who are diagnosed with new variants is steadily increasing – overall 36 percent of cases in France are of the UK variant, while the South African and Brazilian variants account for another five percent.
Modelling in the middle of January predicted that the UK variant of the virus would become dominant by 'late February to mid March', which seems to be borne out by the steady increase – from 25 percent last week to 36 percent this week.
The national figure also hides large regional variations – in the greater Paris Île-de-France region already more than half of cases are variants, whereas in the eastern département of Moselle 30 percent of cases are the South African or Brazilian variants.
High case numbers are also causing concern in Nice, a city the minister will visit on Saturday to consult with local health authorities.
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Experts fear that once the variants become dominant, France's existing restrictions – including a 6pm curfew and the closure of all bars, restaurants, cafés, museums, theatres and cinemas – will no longer be enough to contain the spread.
However, overall the number of cases in France is showing a slight but steady decrease.
Serions-nous à un point de bascule ? C’est encore trop tôt pour conclure, mais le nombre de cas semble baisser moins vite.
Évolution d’une semaine à l’autre : -6% aujourd’hui contre -9% hier, et -10% avant hier. pic.twitter.com/Rp5BgfY5Ix
— GRZ – CovidTracker (@GuillaumeRozier) February 18, 2021
The daily average of new cases has fallen from 20,000 last week to 18,000 this week, and the overall fall in cases is seen even in areas like Moselle and Île-de-France that have a high percentage of variants.
How to explain the apparent contradiction?
“Honesty obliges me to tell you that for the moment we do not know how to explain it,” said Véran on Thursday.
He added that he had been in close touch with his counterparts in other European countries, many of whom are seeing similar patterns and who also lack an explanation.
Ever since the emergence of the UK variant in late December, followed by the South African and Brazilian variants, French health chiefs have been worried that France would see a similar explosion of cases and deaths as seen in the UK in December and January.
It was fear of the variants that was the driving force behind discussions of a third lockdown in France, which has for the moment been decided against, although some experts still argue that it is necessary.
At present the government describes the situation in France as “fragile” but no new restrictions are expected before the school holidays end on March 8th.
Véran added that currently “each week, Covid takes as many victims as road crashes do in a year”.