The day was January 29th this year, when Macron rejected the advice of epidemiologists and his prime minister and health minister and decided to spare France a third Covid lockdown.
On that same day, talking to a group of foreign correspondents, Macron also made a bizarre statement, which remains an indignant obsession of the UK popular media (but was scarcely reported in France). Admitting that he had no evidence, he said that the AstraZeneca vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” for the over-65s.
Macron has since gone back on that baseless claim. He has refused to apologise for his decision to refuse a pre-emptive national lockdown despite warnings that the new British variant of Covid-19 would cause an avalanche of cases by late February or mid-March.
It did not – not really. But it has now.
Over the last few days, France has jumped to around 40,000 new cases a day (more than 80 percent of which are the faster-moving and maybe more lethal UK variant).
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The number of patients in intensive care nationwide is approaching 5,000, topping the peak of the second wave in November but still far short of the worst of the first wave last April. Hospital chiefs in the Paris area warned at the weekend that they may, within two or three weeks, have to decide which Covid patients to try to save and which to allow to die.
This nightmare is called triage, a grim choice familiar in war-zones but not in the hospitals of the capital of one of the world’s wealthiest nations. This is what we have been sacrificing our freedom to avoid for more than a year. Now, if the Paris hospital chiefs are to be believed, it’s going to happen anyway.
Is that all Macron’s fault, as opposition politicians and many strident voices on social media claim? Not entirely. We should accept, after a year of unpleasant surprises, that we are struggling against a disease which defeats expectations and will continue to weary and worry us for many months to come.
Even those continental countries which locked down more drastically than France in January are also suffering a new surge in Covid cases. So are parts of the United States.
Macron’s decision to avoid a lockdown was hugely popular, it should be remembered, supported by around 70 percent of French people in polls until a couple of weeks ago. He judged that a third ‘confinement’, when figures were relatively good, would be calamitous for national morale and economic well-being (and perhaps also his chances of re-election next April and May).
The political attacks are inevitable all the same. Macron made a very personal decision. The Elysée let it be known that he had become an epidemiological expert, even studying reports on the traces of Covid in waste-water in the Paris area.
“The President was right and everyone else was wrong,” a source close to Macron said in late February..
Since then the Covid statistics have soared off the chart.
In truth, Macron’s decision on January 29th has, in part, been vindicated by the eight weeks of relative freedom and economic activity. I think that Macron has got two things much more wrong than his decision to spare France a third confinement from early February.
Firstly, as he has now admitted, he was very slow to grasp the importance of a rapid and efficient vaccination campaign. Yes, supplies through the EU procurement programme were lower than expected but France was using only just over half the doses it received for first five or six weeks of the roll-out.
Secondly, the series of regionally restricted and confusing measures introduced over the last three or four weeks have been ill-considered and possibly counter-productive.
It would have been much better to go for a third, national lockdown with clear rules in mid-March. One is left with the impression that Macron, and the government, were as much trying to protect the President’s reputation as the lockdown-defying First Epidemiologist as the nation’s health and well-being.
The vaccine programme is now much, much better.
Partly, this is because Pfizer and Moderna (and soon Johnson & Johnson) are providing the EU with doses in tens of millions. The sainted AstraZeneca, which it is sacrilegious to criticise in the UK, is still screwing up massively (only a third of its promised doses for the EU in the second quarter of the year).
As things stand (1 million doses in three days at the end of last week) France should overshoot by quite a margin its target of 10 million first vaccinations by April 15th. It should be able to hit its next targets of 20 million by mid-May and 30 million by mid-June. The effect on deaths is already being felt. The impact on infections should also start to be felt in the coming month.
But what should Macron do about the present jumble of rules representing a ‘lockdown light’ in 19 départements covering about one third of France’s 66 million population? They appear not to be working. Should schools be closed? Should the lockdown be more draconian and nationwide?
It is rumoured that the President will address the nation on television on Wednesday night – for the first time this year. That’s usually a sign that tough new restrictions are coming.
But reports in the French media suggest that, in fact, Macron plans to justify his strategy rather than change it, except perhaps at the edges. If so, that may be his biggest mistake of all.
If he wants to win the election next year – if he wants even to be in a position to run – Macron needs to be prepared to anger and frustrate the country in the short term. He needs to heed the scientists, and the past experience of France and others, and accept that only something approaching a full lockdown can check the UK variant-generated third wave of Covid until vaccines show their worth.