Lockdowns and vaccine scepticism – how France and Italy are struggling to get Covid under control

Lockdowns and vaccine scepticism - how France and Italy are struggling to get Covid under control
France and Italy are both struggling with a lockdown exit strategy. Photo: Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP
While many countries are at least talking about easing Covid-related rules, in France and Italy people are bracing for extra restrictions. Clare Speak in Bari and Emma Pearson in Paris discuss the situation in their respective countries.

What is the situation now?

France – the whole of France is under a 6pm-6am curfew and bars, restaurants, cafés, gyms, cinemas, theatres and tourist sites have all been closed since October. In February the French government ruled out, for now, a third lockdown, but extra restrictions including weekend lockdowns are being imposed in areas that have a high level of the virus.

Italy – There’s a nationwide curfew in place from 10pm-5am and a ban on non-essential travel between all regions. Other rules vary by region depending on local infection rates. In areas designated higher-risk ‘red’ and ‘orange’ zones, bars, restaurants, gyms, cinemas, theatres, museums and most shops are shut. For now, the government hopes this system will mean Italy can avoid another national lockdown.

Emma: So Clare, France has in the last couple of weeks changed its strategy from national rules to regional restrictions. We tried this over the summer and it didn’t seem to work so I’m a bit sceptical, but it seems like Italy has been following this strategy for some time – is it working?

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The southern French city of Nice is now under weekend lockdown because of the high number of cases. Photo: Valery Hache/AFP

Clare: I think a lot of people were quite sceptical here too when Italy’s tiered system was first introduced in November. I have to admit I thought we’d all be back under lockdown by now. But four months later it’s still going. 

But is it working? The government seems to think so. The health minister said this week that it’s staying in place as it’s the only way to respond fairly to the different situations in each part of the country. The aim overall though seems to be keeping the infection rate at a manageable level, rather than squashing the curve. New infections and the death toll had been slowly, steadily dropping overall since the tiered system came in, but the infection rate is now rising again. There are concerns that we’re at the start of a feared ‘third wave’ but it’s still too early to be sure.

READ ALSO: Where and how much are coronavirus cases rising in Italy?

A lot of towns and provinces in Italy are being put under local lockdowns now because of the rising numbers and local outbreaks – is anything like that happening in France?

Emma: Yes, we’re seeing very much the same thing. In France this week 20 départements, including Paris, have been labelled ‘alert’ areas because of the rising number of cases and some places including Nice and a large stretch of the Riviera have been put on a weekend lockdown.

Overall cases in France have been on what they call a ‘high plateau’ of about 20,000 new cases a day since mid December, but there are some areas where cases are rising really rapidly and that is worrying authorities. There’s also a lot of concern about new variants of the virus – more than half of all cases are now new variants.  What’s the situation with case numbers in Italy?

Clare: New variants are the big issue in Italy right now too. Up to 50 percent of new cases are thought to be due to variants in some regions, and they’re the cause of a lot of the outbreaks that are leading to the local lockdowns.

It’s interesting that cases in France have plateaued under the national restrictions. The same had been happening here for about two months, with overall cases staying at around 12,000 a day. But it’s now up to about 17,000 and rising.

Bars are open until 6pm in some regions of Italy. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

Emma: We seem to test a lot in France, the tests are free for everyone and available via the pharmacy, so I’m never sure exactly how seriously to take international comparisons of case numbers – what’s the situation with getting a test in Italy? Is it easy to do and do people get tested regularly?

Clare: It’s easy to do if you pay for it. Testing varies by region, but here in the south of Italy at least you can’t often be tested under the national health service. The only people who can access free tests are teachers, healthcare staff or other key workers. I don’t think many people get tested regularly – private testing costs at least €25 a time. I’ve only had it done once and it cost €60. I know it’s more expensive in some countries, like the UK for example if you need a test for travel, but the cost is still a barrier for a lot of people.

Emma: So what exactly is open in Italy now?

Clare: It depends on your regional restrictions. So if you’re in a red zone, pretty much everything is closed except essential shops. But a lot of things are actually open if you’re in a lower-risk area, including museums and art galleries.

Right now my region is a ‘yellow’ zone which means bars and restaurants can open too – until 6pm, anyway. This was supposed to stop people gathering for a spritz in the evenings, but in practice it just means aperitivo hour has moved forward to 5pm.

Emma: You have bars! I’m so jealous, all our bars have been closed since October. On the other hand though, all French schools have been doing in-person teaching since May, they stayed open right through the second lockdown and apparently French pupils have had the highest number of in-person teaching days in Europe over the last year. 

The government made a choice to keep the hospitality and leisure sectors closed in order to be able to open schools, a decision I obviously applaud in the abstract, even if I could kill for a Martini – what’s the situation with schools in Italy?

READ ALSO ANALYSIS Was France right to keep its schools open during the pandemic?

Clare: The Italian government said it aimed to do the same thing late last year. So most schools were able to teach in person, except for high school classes, who’ve been on at least 50 percent distance learning. But lately it’s all become a lot more complicated.

More regions have been moving schools to distance learning, and more businesses have been allowed to reopen. This week the government said that all schools now need to close in red zones, as the concern is that new variants are affecting young people more. So it seems like they’ve completely changed the strategy here now.

Emma: I guess we should maybe talk vaccines too, this is increasingly a sore subject in France as our rollout of the programme is pretty glacial.

We’ve managed to give 3 million people their first jab, which is miles behind countries like the UK and Israel (although we have more than 1 million people fully vaccinated with the second dose too which is actually higher than the UK) and people are getting increasingly frustrated about the slow pace.

READ ALSO 6 reasons why France’s vaccine rollout is so slow 

Even those who are in the priority over 75s group tell us it’s often really hard to get an appointment at the local vaccine centre. How’s it going in Italy?

Clare: I think we’re in a similar boat when it comes to vaccines. Italy has given about 4.5 million shots and has 1.5 million people fully vaccinated. At this rate, most adults wouldn’t be fully vaccinated until December. So there’s a lot of frustration with it here too. But there is hope, as the new government has just announced plans to speed things up significantly – the aim now is to have about half of the population vaccinated by June.

Some of the delays are caused by bureaucratic problems though, and then there’s also the fact that some people in the few priority groups who are eligible actually refuse the vaccine.

Emma: Is vaccine scepticism a problem in Italy? We seem to have really high levels of it in France, around 50 percent of people are telling polls that they won’t definitely be vaccinated.

Clare: Yes, it actually is quite a big problem here too –  the government has made 10 vaccines mandatory in the past few years because vaccination rates were falling so much. With the Covid vaccine, there seems to be really widespread confusion about safety and effectiveness.

Italy’s public health messaging on this has not been particularly clear or reassuring so far, so that will definitely need to change if the government is going to reach their vaccination targets.

Emma: Yes, communication in France has also not been good, particularly about the AstraZeneca vaccine. I think the government has been wary about doing too much of a PR ‘push’ around vaccines in case it just makes people even less inclined to get them – since a lot of French people like nothing more than telling their government where to stick it! But the more hands-off approach doesn’t seem to be working either.

Let’s hope both our governments get their act together by the summer . . .


Member comments

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  4. It’s incorrect to say tests are more expensive in the UK. They are free and available on self-referral to anyone with symptoms and to people who has been advised that they were in close contact with someone with the virus. It’s only people who choose to get a test without symptoms or exposure that pay anything, e.g.because you want to travel or to get early release from self-isolation after arriving in the UK.

    Also 1M people with the second dose when first dose numbers are so low is nothing to brag about, it’s just 1m people left at far higher risk for longer than needed and remaining more able to spread the disease to others. Initial timelines are based on the pre-approval trial practices which is all the pharma companies had at the time to base recommendations and efficacy statements on. We now have real world data and far larger sample sizes to make more educated decisions with – and those studies are showing time and time again that such tight timeless are not needed. Governments should be criticised not praised when they put lives at risk by not following the science as it improves – particularly when it’s based on politicking. Needless delays on vaccines, particularly the first dose, are literally killing people.

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