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

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.

Mask mandates remain in place in France on public transport.
Mask mandates remain in place in France on public transport. Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP

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.

IN NUMBERS France sees rise in Covid cases as MPs extend health pass

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. 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.

  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. 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.

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.