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Just how widespread in France is the Beta variant of Covid?

The UK government is maintaining compulsory quarantine for travellers from France even if they are fully vaccinated, based on its concerns about the Beta variant of Covid. But the stats undermine this argument.

Just how widespread in France is the Beta variant of Covid?
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images via AFP

The UK announced on Wednesday that it would end quarantine for fully vaccinated travellers from across Europe apart from France.

The UK government defended its decision to keep quarantine for travellers from France due to ongoing concerns about the Beta variant of Covid.

The Beta variant or the South African variant as it was first called, was the reason given by the UK when it first announced France would be treated separately to the rest of Europe back on July 16th.

The Beta variant of Covid is believed to render AstraZeneca vaccines more ineffective against stopping the disease. Given that AstraZeneca has been widely rolled out in the UK, the decision would have been understandable if the Beta variant was widely circulating in France.

However even on July 16th the Beta variant was reported to be responsible for a small number of France’s average 5,000 daily Covid-19 cases at the time. 

According to GISAID, which provides open-access data on Covid-19 variants, the Beta variant represented just 3.4% of cases in France as of July 16th.

Since July 16th Covid cases in France have increased fairly rapidly, but the number of Beta cases has actually reduced as the two tweets below suggest.

The first is from France’s UK ambassador Catherine Colonna, the second is from Alexander Holroyd, a French MP who represents French people living abroad.

The reason given for France’s apparent high cases of Beta variant was the inclusion in its stats of cases in the French island of Reunion where the variant is more prevalent.

Reunion island, in the Indian Ocean, is the only part of France where the Beta variant is dominant and is responsible for most of the country’s cases.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab defended the fact the government had apparently based its treatment of France on the number of cases on a small island thousands of miles away from both the UK and France.

“It’s not the distance that matters, it’s the ease of travel between different component parts of any individual country,” Raab said.

However travel between Reunion and France is heavily restricted. Passengers either need to be vaccinated or if they are not, they need to provide a negative test and can only travel if they have a compelling  reason.

Those compelling reasons (motifs impérieux) must be related to urgent family, work or health reasons.

To make matters more confusing, the UK actually lists Reunion itself as an amber country, rather than “amber plus” like France, which in theory means vaccinated travellers from the island don’t have to quarantine on arrival in the UK.

Former UK ambassador to France Peter Ricketts said he was “struggling to find the coherence” in the decision. “UK requires 10 day quarantine for arrivals from mainland France; the Foreign Secretary explains this is mainly because of prevalence of Beta variant in Réunion; but arrivals in UK direct from Réunion are not subject to quarantine,” Lord Ricketts wrote on Twitter.

The one positive piece of news for travellers from France to the UK is that the government is expected to remove France from the amber list at some point next week.

The foreign secretary Raab said they wanted “to get France up the traffic light system as quickly as possible”.

Member comments

  1. So, it’s all about the number of beta variant cases, is it? In France, just 3.4% of their cases are beta. And France has only 5,000/day. UK has over 50,000 / day…. and we’re putting huge blocks on travel because of covid in France!!!! What a load of nonsense. How do we keep falling for this…..

    1. I remember when the Delta variant was ‘only 20 cases’ in France just a few weeks ago. That’s why UK is worried about Beta in France. Vaccination has worked in the UK and they don’t want that undone. When covid cases were last at the current level in the UK, deaths were thirty times higher – that’s why they can safely open up domestically ( but not internationally ).

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STRIKES

Planes, trains and roads: France’s timetable for summer strikes

Unions representing railway workers, airline staff and truck divers have already called for strikes in France over the summer and it's likely that more will follow - here's your guide to the declared strike days and the services that will be affected.

Planes, trains and roads: France's timetable for summer strikes

The majority of the strikes are over pay, with unions saying that the soaring cost of living should mean pay increases for staff. So far there has been no call for a general strike, and each dispute is a separate matter between company bosses and the relevant workers’ representatives.

We will update this story throughout the summer.

Airlines

The air travel sector is the worst hit so far, with several different strikes called.

Airport – workers at Aéroports de Paris (which covers Paris Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports but not Beauvais) will walk out on Friday, July 1st in their second one-day strike. This covers airport staff including security and check-in staff and will primarily affect flights departing from Paris – on their previous strike day one quarter of flights were cancelled. Passengers should check with their airline before going to the airport.

Ryanair – Ryanair cabin crew all around Europe are involved in a dispute with the company and held strike days on Saturday, June 25th and Sunday, June 26th. In France this affected flights at Toulouse, Marseille, Bordeaux and Paris Beauvais airports, although only 16 flights were cancelled (compared to 75 in Spain). Ryanair staff have filed a strike notice for ‘unlimited action’ over the summer, but their industrial action looks set to be conducted as a series of one or two-day strikes, probably in co-ordination with colleagues around Europe.

Exact days are still to be confirmed, but French unions say they will likely target busy times such as the July 8th/9th/10th weekend when French schools are out for summer, as well as the holiday weekend around July 14th.

Easyjet – French Easyjet pilots have written an open letter to the company CEO denouncing the chaos that has already seen the budget airline cancel dozens of flights because of staff shortages. They have not, however, filed a strike notice.

Staff shortages – in addition to strike action, air travel around Europe has been hit hard by shortages of key staff, and many airports have seen long wait times to check in.

Railways

SNCF strike – workers on the French rail operator SNCF have called a national strike on Wednesday, July 6th. This will potentially affect the high-speed TGV, the Intercité and local TER trains in all parts of France. It will not affect city public transport systems like the Paris Metro. SNCF will publish a strike timetable showing which services will be running on the Tuesday evening before the strike. 

Paris public transport – workers on the Paris public transport systems are also involved in a separate dispute about changes to changes to working conditions, this series of one-day actions has so far affected mostly the suburban Transilien trains and the RER network, but not the Metro.

Roads

Truck drivers blockades – Unions including the CFDT called for drivers to stage a blockade of industrial areas, mostly in the greater Paris region, on Monday, June 27th. Drivers too are calling for wage increases in what is likely to be the first in a series of events – usually drivers protest by either blockading certain addresses such as business depots or staging opérations escargot – rolling roadblocks on major routes.

Service station strike – employees of French energy giant Total Energies are also in dispute over wages and staged a one-day strike in June. Employees of service stations run by Total Energies walked out, while others blockaded Total’s refineries so that deliveries of fuel could not get out. So far, there has been no notice filed of a second strike day. 

Others

So far, most of the industrial action has centred on transport, which is one of the sectors that has the most impact on the daily life of both French residents and visitors. However there are other sectors that are involved in disputes over pay and conditions, notably healthcare. Staff at several hospitals have already staged industrial action – although for healthcare workers a grève involves staging protests outside the hospital, rather than walking out.

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