OPINION: New wave of Covid cases in France is likely, but not as bad as the UK’s

Mask mandates remain in place in France on public transport.
Mask mandates remain in place in France on public transport. Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP
With Covid case numbers in France showing a slight but sustained rise, John Lichfield looks at whether we can expect a fifth wave and whether it will be as bad as the situation across the Channel.

Is France, like Britain, fated to suffer a new spike of Covid this winter?

On two occasions in the last ten months, France reduced the Covid pandemic to manageable levels, only to be swamped by a new wave of infections which, in effect, crossed the Channel.

The alpha (UK variant) arrived in France in January and the delta (Indian variant) in July, a month or so after the United Kingdom. This is not necessarily to “blame” Britain – just to state the facts.

In the last two months, France has reduced its average number of cases from around 24,000 a day in mid-August to around 4,600 a day.

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The UK now has an average of 46,000 cases a day – ten times as many as France – and the numbers are rising fast. The British health secretary, Sajid Javid, warned on Tuesday that they could reach 100,000 this winter.

Is this déjà vu all over again? Are the British figures in October a forecast of the French figures in November-December?

Maybe. Maybe not.

On the two previous occasions, the renewed boom in cases was caused by a more aggressive variant of Covid-19. It was inevitable, despite restrictions on travel, that this new form would spread to other European countries and especially Britain’s nearest continental neighbour.

This time, the new wave in Britain cannot be blamed on a mutation of the virus. There is a new form of the Delta variant in limited numbers in the UK – AY4.2 – which may be more contagious and may cause trouble in the weeks ahead. It does not explain the present surge in cases in the UK, which is most concentrated amongst children, teenagers and 20-somethings.

That may be good news for France – but it is also a warning.

Britain is paying the price for a mixture of its successes and its failures. France has avoided some of the failures but risks falling into some of the same traps.

The UK raced ahead of EU countries in its vaccination programme from January to April. The protection is now wearing off ahead of its neighbours but the UK government has been slow to introduce a programme of third or booster jabs.

Britain also cast caution to the winds in July, celebrating “freedom day” and abandoning many of the irksome social protections which (whatever the critics may say) slow the spread of the virus.

I visited London earlier this month for the first time in two years. The contrast with France was striking – very little mask-wearing, even on public transport.

Britain also refused to extend the vaccination programme to teenagers until a few weeks ago. There were even some in Britain who accused France of unnecessarily “vaccinating children” to boost its headline total of first jabs.

Britain’s early success in rolling out the vaccination programme to adults and especially the elderly was impressive and probably saved many lives. But many EU countries, including France, have now overtaken Britain.

From the summer, the UK has rested on its oars – or like the hare in Aesop’s fable taken a nap before completing the race (the race to protect as much of the population as possible).

Britain, after shillying and shallying, refused to introduce even a limited form of the health or vaccine passport. President Emmanuel Macron announced a French health pass on July 12th (making access to fun and long-distance travel dependent on full vaccination, recovery from Covid or a recent negative test).

EXPLAINED When and where you need a health pass in France

Since that date, over 15,000,000 French people have been first-vaccinated. In the UK in the same period the figure is circa 3,500,000.

France has now completed almost 51m first vaccinations (the total was revised downward slightly yesterday). Britain, with a slightly higher population has given 49.5m first jabs. Using international definitions, France has first vaccinated 75.3 percent of its whole population and completely vaccinated 67.3 percent. The figures for the UK are 72.6 percent and 66.6 percent.

Coverage of teenagers, 20 somethings and some ethnic minorities in the UK remains relatively poor. France’s weakness is coverage of the very old or 80-plus – still 13 percent or so unvaxxed.

Since late-August, France’s daily average of Covid cases has sunk rapidly. In the last week or so, it has started to rise but has now flattened out at around 4,600 cases a day.

This may, however, be a false reading. Free tests for the vax-shy (to enable them to keep up their health pass) ended last Friday. The number of tests has fallen sharply which may disguise the number of new cases. We will know in a few days.

There are good reasons to hope that France will not suffer the kind of surge of cases seen in Britain. There are also good reasons to be worried.

Observation of social distancing measures remains reasonably good but anecdotal evidence suggest that it is beginning to weaken. France will start to suffer in the coming months the kind of erosion of vaccine protection already seen in the UK.

The French government has launched a booster, or third shot, programme for care and health workers, the over 65s and the fragile but it is currently suffering the same fate as the early French first-vax programme. It is bobbing along without any sense of urgency. Less than 2,000,000 third jabs have been given so far. The government promises to speed things up.

READ ALSO Who can get a Covid booster shot in France?

The infection pattern of the last year – seen in the below graph by Nicolas Berrod of Le Parisien – is that France follows about a month behind the UK but at a substantially lower level. With the weather growing colder and vaccination protection for the early French vaccinees fading, there will probably be a resurgence of cases in the next month or so.

With luck and a renewed sense of government and public caution, the figures will go nowhere near as high as the 100,000 cases a day predicted for the UK.


Member comments

  1. We in Australia are also looking at the UK with interest. With the UK rushing into many of their decisions, they have served as a sounding board for many other nations. As of today we have 86.6% first vaccinations in 16+ year olds and 73.1% fully vaccinated in 16+ year olds. From November 2021 Australia will open its international border for the first time since March 2020, however it will only be for vaccinated citizens and their families at this time.

    It seems the world is caught in a horrible loop, with every winter looking at how to deal with covid. Sadly, the future does not look good at this stage, despite the vaccines, although they have reduced deaths thankfully.

  2. The Covid experience has been a lesson about humanity and what can be expected from humanity in a world wide crisis.

    Discouraging is the operative word!

  3. Very useful summary of the current state of affairs and the possible future state for France. I think a rise in cases is inevitable in the winter months however, if the French and EU authorities take the sensible measure of closing their borders to the UK that will at least delay the inevitable.

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