What the scientists say
Jean-François Delfraissy, head of France’s influential Scientific Council told the Senate in the French Parliament on December 9th that it would be necessary, like last year, to respect barrier gestures and ensure vulnerable family members are kept safe over the holiday period. He also recommended that people should take a Covid-19 test before any seasonal family get-togethers.
His comments echoed those of fellow Conseil scientifique member Professor Arnaud Fontanet, who last week called on families to limit Christmas Eve gatherings to ‘six people rather than 12’, during an interview on France Inter.
The Conseil Scientifique reiterated Delfraissy’s comments to the Senate in a report published on December 13th.
For “family gatherings such as Christmas dinners” it recommends, “limiting the number of participants, ensuring that vulnerable people have received their booster dose, airing the premises regularly by opening a window or door for 10 minutes every hour if possible, and to performing a self-test on the same day, or an antigenic test the day before or a self-test on the day of the event”.
It has also recommended, “immediately renouncing gatherings in enclosed areas where wearing a mask is not possible or appropriate, especially all gatherings that involve drinking and eating”.
The council also said companies should cancel all Christmas work gatherings and encourage employees to work from home where possible. It also said anyone with symptoms that could be Covid-19 should stay home.
Finally the council advised the public against attending any large scale events over the festive period that could lead to “giant clusters” or so-called super-spreader events due to the how easily the new Omicron variant seems to spread.
“Even slight reinforcement of [personal] barrier measures”, such as using wearing a facemask, maintaining distance from others in public areas and using hand sanitiser, could have “a very important impact” on the current wave of infections, it added.
Why is it saying this?
Health authorities expect an “increase in hospital admissions of patients” related to the fifth wave caused by the Delta variant of Covid-19. A peak of more than 2,000 admissions per day is expected, close to the level seen in the second wave in autumn 2020, while the Omicron variant is “spreading extremely rapidly”.
Faced with this ‘double threat’, the Scientific Council has urged French people to cut the times they are in company in the lead-up to Christmas and to stay at home if they are showing symptoms of Covid-19.
What the politicians have said
French Prime Minister Jean Castex and Minister of Health Olivier Véran earlier detailed measures to stem the fifth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The situation demands an individual as well as a collective effort,” Castex said in a televised address in early December, as he made a direct appeal for people to take personal responsibility for their health and the health of others as Christmas approaches.
But, with 90 percent of the eligible French population vaccinated against Covid-19 and millions more making appointments for a third (booster) dose, “it’s no longer the time for lockdowns”, he said in a message that advocated “vigilance” without “giving in to panic”.
“We have all had a tendency to lower our guard [recently],” Castex said as he called on the French to “lift the pedal” on social interactions, such as office parties in the days and weeks before the holidays.
“My message is very simple: until the end of the year, we ease off … we stop, we protect ourselves and thus protect our ability to enjoy Christmas,” said the Prime Minister, who recently contracted the virus and had to isolate.
As such, there has been no official government ban on seasonal office or private get-togethers. Castex appealed for people to be sensible, to cut pre-Christmas office parties where possible and wear masks as necessary, with the aim to make sure that family celebrations can go ahead as planned.
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal clarified on France Inter radio: “This may be the start of a slowdown in the growth of the epidemic. We must continue our efforts and prudence, this will allow us to save the holidays.”
“What we want is that the French can spend Christmas with their families.”
The Conseil Scientifique’s later advice backs up that stance.
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Nightclubs, bars and restaurants
Nightclubs in France are now closed for four weeks over the Christmas period, but no additional mandatory limits have been placed on bars, cafes and restaurants, beyond the requirement that customers carry a valid health pass. Diners in restaurants can only remove their masks when seated at their table.
Health pass rules also apply to Christmas markets in towns and cities across the country.
Attal said the reason that, with the exception of the nightclub closures – because they are more usually frequented by younger people who are driving the current rise in cases – no further restrictions are currently considered necessary because “the efforts, the barrier gestures, vaccination and the booster dose, they’re paying off”.
So, bars, cafes and restaurants remain open, as normal, with health pass rules, and shows and events can still go ahead – but expect venues to be even more vigilant on health passes.
But the Conseil Scientifique has now called on people to avoid large gatherings if possible.