Prime Minister Jean Castex at the beginning of September declared that France was “on a good path towards the return of a normal life”.
The mood of cautious optimism was echoed by Alain Fischer, head of the government’s vaccination advisory board, who told BFMTV: “We are not very far from a return to something close to normal life”.
But could France really be in a position to drop its health restrictions in the near future?
In the week leading up to Wednesday, September 8th, 11,932 people tested positive for Covid-19 per day in France, 24 percent lower than the previous week, as the graph below from Le Parisien reporter Nicolas Berrod indicates.
Meanwhile, as of Tuesday, September 7th, 73.4 percent of the total French population had received at least one vaccine dose, rising to 88 percent of the eligible population (everyone aged 12 and over).
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• 12 828 nouveaux cas positifs ont été recensés en 24h, versus 17 621 mercredi dernier.
— Nicolas Berrod (@nicolasberrod) September 8, 2021
But the restart of the school year has given cause for caution.
In September 2020, la rentrée (back to school) period coincided with France’s second wave of Covid cases, which eventually forced the country into a second national lockdown from the end of October.
With children mixing, and more people returning to large cities following the summer holidays, French scientists have already alerted the government of the risk of Covid spreading in schools.
While 65.8 percent of 12 to 17-year-olds have already received at least one dose of a vaccine, younger children are not yet eligible.
“If we let the incidence rate rise among children, it’s going to have an effect on other age groups,” the epidemiologist Vittoria Colizza told franceinfo.
Antoine Flahault, epidemiologist and professor of public health at the University of Geneva, said that France could avoid a fifth wave this autumn.
“France is in a rather favourable position going into the new school year, with a reproduction rate consistently below 0.85,” Flahault told The Local.
The situation is not all positive, however. There were 10,934 people being treated for Covid in hospital when schools went back on September 2nd, more than double the number from a year a ago.
On August 19th, thirty doctors and teachers published an open letter in Le Monde, where they called on the government to do more to protect children.
“It seems unthinkable to us, for the majority of French départements, to consider a return to school at ‘Level 2’ of the health protocol, when the incidence rate among the 0-19-year-olds is five times higher than at the rentrée 2020,” they wrote.
But the major difference between September 2020 and September 2021 is vaccines.
“Thanks to vaccination, the intensity of control measures necessary to maintain hospitalisations at manageable levels should be substantially less than what was required before the roll-out of vaccines,” France’s Pasteur Institute wrote in a modelling study published on September 6th.
The report also maintained the hypothesis that vaccination reduces the risk of hospitalisation by 95 percent.
However, the research centre warned that high vaccine coverage may not be enough on its own without other protective measures, due to the “high transmissibility and severity of the Delta variant and the reduced efficacy of vaccines against infection by this variant.”
Indeed, their modelling rests upon the assessment that vaccines now reduce the risk of infection by 60 percent, compared to 80 percent prior to the rise of the Delta variant. According to their provisions, vaccinated people could account for half of all Covid infections and 28 percent of hospitalisations.
“It is therefore important that vaccinated people continue to respect protective measures and to wear a mask.”
And closely linked to vaccination rates in France is the use of the health passport.
Since President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement on July 12th that a health pass would be required for many everyday activities, and that healthcare workers would have to be vaccinated, France has seen a sharp rise in vaccination rates.
Despite weekly protests over the use of the health passport, millions of French people are voting with their feet and heading to the vaccine centre.
As Castex announced on September 8th, 88 percent of the eligible population have received at least one vaccine dose.
Flahault said: “The health pass has made a large contribution, and if the health protocols put in place to protect schools are sufficiently effective, the country can hope to avoid a bounce this autumn.
“Other neighbouring countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland or Austria are not in such a good position today.”
So what of the future?
Jean-François Delfraissy, head of France’s Scientific Council which advises the government on Covid policy, told BFM on July 23rd that a new variant would probably arrive this winter, and that a return to normal life would have to wait – “maybe in 2022, or 2023”.
Pour Jean-François Delfraissy, le retour à la normale sera "peut-être en 2022 ou 2023", "nous aurons probablement un autre variant dans le courant de l'hiver" pic.twitter.com/HQPSdR85Lk
— BFMTV (@BFMTV) July 23, 2021
Mahmoud Zureik, an epidemiology and public health professor at Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines University, agrees, telling franceinfo on August 20th that he believes “Covid will be here for months, years”.
“The objective is to make this virus like the other coronaviruses which exist, and to be able to live with it without health consequences.”
Immunité collective : "C'est une illusion, le Covid va rester des années. Enlever le masque en milieu clos est une très mauvaise idée", estime Mahmoud Zureik pic.twitter.com/uZndxNn6IG
— franceinfo (@franceinfo) August 20, 2021
Flahault shares the Pasteur Institute’s assessment that the Delta variant has changed things, sating: “The vaccine seems less effective against transmission of the virus variants, which could thwart any chance of achieving herd immunity.”
Both professors believe preventative measures such as mask wearing will continue to play an important role, along with vaccination.
“We are able to contain the AIDS pandemic without ever having relied on the concept of herd immunity,” Flahault said.
“We were able, on the other hand, to transform a deadly disease into an infection which is no longer associated with a fall in life expectancy when it’s treated.
“We also do everything to make sure HIV is circulating as little as possible in the community. Maybe we will turn to solutions of this type to control the Covid-19 pandemic in the long term.”