‘Difficult weeks ahead’: The parts of France that risk weekend lockdowns

'Difficult weeks ahead': The parts of France that risk weekend lockdowns
Parisians flocked to the Seine riverbanks last weekend to enjoy what could be their last sunny weekend out and about for some time. Photo: THOMAS COEX / AFP
The French PM and members of his government will hold another press conference on Thursday during which he looks set to announce new restrictions, including weekend lockdowns in those parts of the country where Covid rates are soaring and hospitals struggling.

Prime Minister Jean Castex will hold the press conference at 6pm Thursday (The Local will bring you all the latest news from the announcements) during which it appears likely he will announce new measures for certain areas such as Paris and the surrounding suburbs.

Speaking after a President Emmanuel Macron held a government defence council meeting on Wednesday spokesman Gabriel Attal spoke of “a worrying and continuous rise” in infection rates.

Attal suggested there was light at the end of the tunnel and that thanks to vaccinations the French could expect a return to normal life by mid-April. However before then things will be anything but normal.

“The weeks ahead will be difficult,” Castex said during a government meeting on Wednesday morning, according to French media.

The clock is ticking for 20 of France’s 96 mainland départements, which have been put on “alert” to expect extra restrictions, with a weekend lockdown thought to be the most likely.

The 20 départements are; Alpes-Maritimes, Bouches-du-Rhône, Drôme, Essonne, Eure et Loir, Hauts-de-Seine, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Moselle, Nord, Oise, Paris, Pas-de-Calais, Rhône, Seine-et-Marne, Seine-Saint-Denis, Somme, Val d’Oise, Val-de-Marne, Var and Yvelines.

Another four départements – Aisne, Hautes-Alpes, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Aube – could be in the danger zone too after their levels of Covid virus on Wednesday exceeded the government’s alert threshold.

The government had asked local authorities to come up with their own ideas, and has been holding consultations over the past week, but the final decision will be taken at a government level.

The decision is expected to be announced by Castex and health minister Olivier Véran in their regular press conference on Thursday evening.

What’s the overall situation?

After a slight drop in mid February, France’s Covid numbers are again on the rise. Last week the more contagious variant first discovered in the UK represented over 50 percent of the total cases.

Both the test positivity rate and the incidence rate – the number of new cases per 100,000 inhabitants registered the past seven days – have risen steadily since mid February. France’s national incidence rate was 222 on February 27th (the most recent data available) – approaching the “maximal alert” threshold of 250.

But the gravity of the situation varies widely between regions.

“The (local) disparities call for different responses,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said after Wednesday’s Defence Council meeting. 

What will happen?

“If there is no improvement in the 20 départements placed on heightened alert, we will consider a weekend lockdown very seriously,” a person described as “close to Emmanuel Macron” told FranceInfo on Tuesday.

A weekend lockdown remains among the likeliest measures, although Attal previously stressed that “all options are on the table”. The government wants new restrictions agreed and in place by March 5th at the latest.

However French TV channel BFM TV and other media reported on Wednesday evening that several government sources had confirmed that only a “handful” of the départements would actually be placed under a weekend lockdown. 

According to the unconfirmed reports, based on information from government sources, the Paris region of Île de France would not be subject to a weekend lockdown.

“We really only want to use a weekend lockdown as a last resort,” one government source said.

It’s likely we will have to wait until the press conference on Thursday evening to know what will actually happen.

On Wednesday France reported 26,788 new Covid-19 infections meaning the daily rate had stabilised at just over 21,000 positive cases over 7 days.

Which areas are the most likely to get new restrictions?

The map below, published by French data scientist Guillaume Rozier on the popular Twitter account CovidTracker on Monday, shows the incidence rate per département, with the darkest areas having exceeded the threshold of 250.

On Wednesday, four new departements – Aisne, Hautes-Alpes, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Aube – exceeded that threshold too, although the government has not yet added them to the list of areas on heightened alert.

The areas suffering from the highest case numbers are concentrated in the north, around Paris, in the southeast and northeast.

Paris

Intensive care units in the greater Paris region Île-de-France exceeded a 70 percent pressure by Covid patients in all départements on Monday, according to government data.

All of the Île-de-France départements exceeded the maximum threshold of 250 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants. Paris had an average incidence rate of 317.5 in the seven days preceding February 26th, the latest data available on the public health agency Santé Publique France’s website, but some of its suburbs reported even higher rates, including Val-de-Marne (350), Seine-Saint-Denis (394), Seine-et-Marne (338.9). 

Paris Mayor Hidalgo has called a weekend lockdown a “difficult, hard, even inhumane” option, asking for softer policies such as teaching school classes outside as much as possible, and speeding up the vaccine programme in the region.

Hidalgo said she had not suggested a strict three-week lockdown as an alternative to the weekend lockdown, as suggested by her deputy mayor, Emmanuel Grégoire. He later rowed back on his remarks, saying they were “an idea and not a proposal.” 

Northern France

Further north, in the region Hautes-de-France, the situation has become even tenser than around the capital. The département of Pas-de-Calais reporting an incidence rate of 401.7 over the same period, Somme 325.2, Nord 338.5 and Aisne 256.4.

The Prefect of Pas-de-Calais has asked that the government impose a weekend lockdown for a period of three weeks, a proposal that “is not joyful, but we need a collective and strong reaction,” Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart, who is also vice president of the region Hauts-de-France told FranceInfo.

Like Hidalgo, the Calais mayor also asked for more vaccines, saying “if we have got such (high) incidence rates, it is because the vaccines are not in Pas-de-Calais.”

The prefect has also asked that face masks become compulsory everywhere outside in Pas-de-Calais, according to the regional news website La Voix du Nord. Masks are currently compulsory inside all public spaces in all of France, though most cities and towns have issued local rules ordering people wear them outside in certain areas.

Near Dunkirk, where a weekend curfew is already in place, local authorities are mulling whether even tougher measures are needed. “Shouldn’t we impose a lockdown for 15 days to halt this pandemic,” asked Martial Beyaert, Socialist Party Mayor of Grande-Synthe, in the département Nord.

Southeast

But the worst-hit part of France is Provences-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA), the region surrounding the French Riviera. 

In Alpes-Maritimes, the départements of Nice, the incidence rate was 588 on February 26th – the highest of the country. But its neighbouring départements also exceeded the maximum threshold, with Var reporting a rate of 324.6, Bouches-du-Rhône one of 318.3, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence of 251.2 and Hautes-Alpes of 292.1 and overwhelmed hospitals in the area have had to transfer some of the sickest patients.

Still, PACA President Renaud Muselier has spoken out against imposing a weekend curfew in the southern port-city of Marseille, France’s second biggest city, situated in Bouches-du-Rhone, which has lower Covid numbers than its neighbour Nice. Muselier, who belongs to the rightwing Republicains party, also said he was not “very favourable” of the the 6pm curfew already in place. 

“It is necessary at 8pm, but there is no proof that it is helping the fight to halt the circulation (of the virus) between 6pm and 8pm,” he told the French TV channel BFM.

Local authorities in Marseille have fiercely opposed the government’s Covid measures since the start, but it is not the only Bouches-du-Rhône city that opposes a weekend lockdown.

READ ALSO: Why have so many in Marseille rebelled against French government health measures?

“Our positivity rate . . . is less than half of that in Alpes-Maritimes,” Georges Cristiani, mayor of Mimet and president of the union of mayors in Bouches-du-Rhône, told BFM. “So we cannot compare local situations and generalise.”

So what does this mean?

The government wants to shift away from its so far highly centralised approach to a more local one, aware of that the virus would outlive even another strict, national lockdown.

They consider a weekend lockdown as the cheaper option, both for the country’s reeling economy – as it would allow for people to continue to work like they do now – and for the country’s general mental health (although some critics would say the curfew is worse).

Going local could be a risky approach. Historical tensions between Paris and the rest of France occasionally see local authorities accusing the central government of bulldozing over them with their decisions. This is why the government, eager to avoid a backlash similar to when they imposed restrictions on Marseille and not Paris last autumn, has been holding intense round of talks with local authorities.

But taken into account the high pressure on hospitals and the increased presence of new variants among the new cases, the government will likely find it necessary impose some forms of additional measures in the hardest-hit areas.

Macron’s team is however adamant that it wants to keep schools open. Their opinion is that keeping children at home comes with too high social and psychological costs, in addition to making it difficult for parents to juggle work and childcare.

They are also highly unlikely to loosen restrictions in areas with low Covid numbers, like the northwest around Brittany, where some have asked to scrap the 6pm curfew locally.

Health Minister Olivier Véran bluntly told the French parliament this week: “We know that for another four to six weeks, whatever happens, we won’t lower the level of restrictions in France.”

For a full view of the incidence rate in your département, see the map below.


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