By mid December France was reporting a daily average of just below 50,000 Covid cases with the national incidence topping 500 cases per 100,000 people – far above the alert level of 50.
In the seven day period through to December 13th, an average of 130 people died from Covid per day – up 31.7 percent from the week before.
Intensive care units are full to 54 percent of capacity with an average of 250 new admissions each day
The pandemic shows no signs of easing in France, or anywhere else for that matter.
What’s happening with the current 5th wave?
First the good news.
French health minister Olivier Véran has said that France is approaching the peak of the fifth wave.
In an interview with Le Parisien on Sunday, Véran described the decelerating rate of transmission as “a good sign” and commended efforts made by the population.
Whilst the number of reported Covid cases has rocketed in recent weeks the rate of increase has decreased over the last ten days to suggest France has reached the top of the curve of the fifth wave.
The chart below from Covid Tracker shows the apparent plateau for the fifth wave – albeit a high one.
But while the number of cases may be peaking it fifth wave, hospital admissions and notably the number of people admitted for intensive care treatment will continue to rise in the days and weeks ahead due to the time lag between infection and the onset of serious illness.
There are currently over 1,500 people admitted to hospital with Covid each day in France.
Authorities expect around 2,000 hospital admissions per day once the peak is reached – close to the level seen in the second wave during the autumn of 2020.
And what about the bad news?
The bad news is that unlike in previous waves of Covid infections in France, it appears the next wave is already on the horizon.
And that’s because of the new highly contagious Omicron variant. Whilst France has officially only reported around 130 cases of Omicron the real number is likely far higher.
France’s Scientific Council has said that the cases of infection from Omicron variant could see “a rapid growth in France,” and that we will only begin to see its impact in the coming weeks.
Paris hospitals chief Martin Hirsch has warned that a sixth wave, driven predominantly by the Omicron variant, will likely begin in January 2022.
And the epidemiologist Antoine Flahault, who is the Director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva added: “The news is not good concerning Omicron, its spread is meteoric, raising fears of a very strong new wave shortly after the 5th wave.”
There are still plenty of unknowns about how seriously the Omicron variant will impact those infected. While there are reports from South Africa that the variant only leads to milder cases, scientists and political leaders in northern Europe are preaching caution around this hypothesis.
The fact studies have suggested Omicron variant evades immunity from vaccines more easily than the Delta variant has put governments on alert.
France like many neighbouring countries is in a race to get as many members of the public their booster jab – which is believed to offer greater protection against serious illness caused by the Omicron variant.
France in a race to get boosters out
The country’s Scientific Council says the key to cutting the number of hospital admissions is to give a booster jab to as many as possible per day. Increasing the rate of booster jabs from 400,000 a day to 600,000 will keep hundreds out of hospital each day it says.
On Tuesday this week some 687,000 people were given a booster jab in France whilst the daily average stands at 572, 916 according to Covid tracker.
So in France, as in other countries in Europe, it appears the outlook for the pandemic depends on a race between the Omicron variant and the ability to deliver boosters en masse.
It is possible that the government will open even more vaccination centres in order to cope with the demand.
At least the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen sounded a note of optimism about Europe’s ability to cope with the new surge in infections.
“Over the last year, we’ve worked hard and we’ve achieved a great deal and that is why Europe is in a better position now to fight the virus,” she said.
She insisted there were “enough vaccine doses for every European now” as EU countries push to deliver booster jabs to combat the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.
“We’re now in a position to produce 300 million doses of the vaccine per month here in Europe,” she said.
So what about future restrictions in France?
For the moment the government has been adamant no new restrictions will be brought in, at least ahead of Christmas, with spokesman Gabriel Attal insisting “we believe in the responsibility of French people.”
However reports on Wednesday said the president and his ministers would hold an emergency health council meeting on Friday to discuss the worsening epidemic and any appropriate measures.
The last restrictions announced by the government saw the closure of nightclubs and a return to working from home for two to three days a week. No official restrictions on family gatherings or capacity limits on bars and restaurants were announced.
But the government’s scientific council have gone slightly further.
It has warned that big social gatherings before Christmas could lead to “super-spreader events” and that they should be avoided.
“The most efficient response, given current scientific knowledge, consists of cancelling all indoor gatherings where mask wearing is not possible… particularly gatherings where food and drink is consumed.”
The scientific council has recommended that the public avoid social gatherings like end-of-year parties. It has also encouraged limiting the number of people at Christmas dinners, aerating indoor spaces, working from home and performing self-tests for Covid before meeting friends and family.
What about in the new year?
The government’s official line has always been “we will never rule anything out”, but for the moment there is no suggestion restrictions or closures will be imposed after Christmas. The emphasis is, as it has been, to get vaccines into peoples’ arms.
The government is hoping changes to rules of the health pass will be enough to encourage the take up of boosters.
Essentially from January 15th all adults will have to have a booster jab within seven months of their second dose or their pass will become invalid. That rule applies to over 65s from Wednesday December 15th.
Some scientists however believe restrictions will be necessary in France in the New Year.
Epidemiologist Antoine Flahault, from the University of Geneva said to avoid another lockdown in France it was urgent to lower the infection rate.
To “regain control” over the pandemic he suggested four steps: vaccinating the entire population with 3 doses as quickly as possible; instituting home-working wherever possible; extending the Christmas holidays in schools and universities and promoting ventilation and the wearing of masks inside.
The Scientific Council has also suggested that the government should increase systematic testing in schools – including for asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic children.
The government has yet to confirm whether it will introduce more systematic testing in schools, but it is pushing for the vaccination of children.
From December 15th, at-risk children (those with chronic health conditions or other co-morbidities) between the ages of 5-11 will be eligible for vaccination. The government is likely to expand this to all children over the age of 5 from the end of the month.
As for further school closures or an extension of the holidays this seems unlikely.
“The health situation would have to be catastrophic for us to close schools,” French Prime Minister Jean Castex told France Bleu Provence on Tuesday. “It is not our intention.”