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

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

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.

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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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