Attal was speaking after the weekly Defence Council, where President Emmanuel Macron and his government meet to review the health situation and decide which new Covid measures, if any, to take.
And the government spokesman’s apparent optimism contrasted sharply with the latest health data the Council had been reviewing – which included rising case numbers in several regions and hospitals under severe pressure.
Nevertheless, the government remains hopeful that things will soon take a turn for the better, and has tasked a ministerial committee to examine how France can reopen, when the time comes.
While the time frame depends on how the health situation develops in the coming days and weeks, we do have some information about the strategies the government is examining.
The reopening will be will be different from what we saw last summer when the government scrapped health rules as Covid numbers dropped.
This time, the goal will be to find a longterm strategy that can allow the country to remain free from draconic measures such as a nationwide lockdown or the night time curfew currently in place. In order to do so, the reopening will have to be gradual, closely monitored and continuously evaluated. Technology will play key roles in this process.
Here are some of the ideas put forward:
Health pass – France has been sceptical of introducing a “vaccine passport” as suggested by some EU countries, but the government has floated the idea of putting in place a pass sanitaire (health pass) to access bars, restaurants, gyms, cinemas and other establishments.
The idea – and it is currently just an idea – would be to use an app to register health data. It could be a negative Covid test on the TousAntiCovid health app, or to use a form declaring oneself free from Covid symptoms, similar to the attestation (permission slip) for leaving the house during curfew or lockdown.
So far the government has discarded the idea of using vaccine results as proof of safe entry to restaurants, bars and other establishments on a national level, saying this would be unfair to the groups that so far are excluded from the strict vaccination priority scheme.
“If we manage to reopen some places,” the president previously said, “we can not make their access conditional on vaccination, as we would not even have opened vaccination to the youngest groups.”
QR codes – this idea is less sensitive than introducing a so-called health pass. The idea is that restaurants and other establishments would get their own QR code that customers would have to scan with a smartphone upon entry. This information could be linked to the TousAntiCovid app, which could then alert anyone who had been in the establishment in question had discovered a positive case.
Name and contact number checks – the less hi-tech version of the QR code is taking the name and contact details of every customer as they enter, to allow for contact tracing in the event of a positive case. The hospitality industry has expressed scepticism towards this idea, as it would imply their staff taking the time to make these checks. Bar and restaurant owners have said to be more positive to the QR code idea, as it does not involve their staff – although it would mean you need a smartphone to eat or drink out.
Lunchtime only bars and restaurants – one idea has been to open bars, cafés and restaurants during the daytime only. That would mean the 6pm curfew could remain in place, although it would require a more extensive support package for restaurants and bars, who would see their evening service slashed. Figuring out strategies to provide financial support to the hospitality businesses during the reopening period will also be a matter for the ministerial committee to discuss.
Concerts – the culture minister has planned to hold “experimental” concerts in March and April in order to find a way to reopen the cultural sector, which has been closed for months. Roselyne Bachelot has said she is hopeful of replicating a model of sit-down concerts to outdoor festivals this summer. These experiments will be important to other parts of the culture sector such as cinemas and museums, as scientists and health authorities will work together to monitor the spread of Covid during the concerts.
International travel – introducing a “vaccine passport” for cross-border travel remains a sensitive topic in France, although the government has begun a month-long trial of an app that will allow people to upload either a vaccination certificate or a negative Covid test, although this is limited to flights between France and the overseas territories of Gaudeloupe and Martinique.
Announcing it, the transport minister stressed that the pass was intended for cross-border travel only, and did not foreshadow a broader Covid vaccination requirement on a national level.
Regional reopening – France is currently seeing huge variations in case numbers between regions, leading some in areas like Brittany, which currently has low case numbers, to hope for a regional reopening.
However, the government has previously been cautious about this idea, saying it would have to be accompanied by a domestic travel ban to prevent that those in high-risk zones travel to low-risk ones to escape their own restrictions – risking an increased spread of the virus.
So how likely is it that this will happen in April?
Whether the deadline of “mid April” can be maintained will depend on the health situation, which is looking increasingly fragile at the moment.
French media reported on Friday that the government was seriously considering reimposing a lockdown in Île-de-France, the greater Paris region, although nothing has been decided yet.
However critics are pessimistic about the tight time frame. Axel Kahn, a prominent French scientist and doctor, discarded the “by mid April” comment as “n’importe quoi” (nonsense) in an interview with TV channel BFM on Tuesday.
“Returning to normal, we’ll get there. But by April 15th? It’s not very likely.”