What is a poor government to do? There were clear signs last week that France was weathering its fifth wave of the Covid pandemic. Now the dials are spinning in different directions.
Acute cases are falling for the first time since October but new cases – which are 97 percent Omicron – are still booming. There have been over 400,000 Covid cases in France in each of the last two days. Du jamais vu.
First the good news. In France as elsewhere, there is clear evidence that Omicron is less dangerous than Delta or its predecessors. The number of patients entering acute care is dropping sharply as the remains of the Delta wave subsides.
Now the bad news. There is evidence that a new form of Omicron – a variant of a variant – is spreading in Denmark, Belgium and now France. The subvariant – Omicron BA.2 – is harder to identify with existing tests. It has been nicknamed “furtive Omicron”.
So far its seems to be no more damaging than Omicron One, which we should perhaps now call “nothing-to-hide” Omicron. Experts fear that it may explain the renewed surge of cases this week. It may even be the beginning of a whole new wave – piling on top of the first Omicron wave just us as Omicron piled on top of the Delta wave in December.
Professor Antoine Flahaut of the University of Geneva and Karine Lacombe, head of infection diseases at Paris Saint-Antone hospital, both warned this week that the pandemic is far from over.
Dr Lacombe said that Omicron – in all its forms – seemed to be a “whole new illness”, more contagious than other forms of Covid but considerably less harmful. She said Omicron appeared mostly to affect the nose and throat, not to attack the lungs.
So what IS a poor government to do? A few days ago the French government was plainly preparing to cash in its winnings on its December gamble NOT to lock down the country for a fourth time. Ministers spoke of clear signs that the Omicron wave was cresting with the hospital system unsubmerged.
The December Gamble has been vindicated so far. Admissions to acute care are 16 percent down in a week. All the same, a swelling wave of Omicron, 1 or 2, even if less deadly than Delta, could still put hospitals under acute strain.
With the presidential election now less than three months away, President Emmanuel Macron is again confronted with a dilemma. Does he act in the best interests of the nation’s health? Or does he allow himself to be influenced by the fast-approaching election?
The answer seems to be that the government will kick for touch.
The health Defence Council met today under President Emmanuel Macron’s chairmanship. A press conference has been announced for this evening which is expected to announce a timetable for relaxing the rules on home-working and the numbers of people allowed in public spaces. Nothing will change for two weeks at least.
Macron has been frustrated by Covid developments, good and bad, in other ways in the last few days.
An international study by the Conseil d’analyse économique – using French, British and other experts – found that Macron’s decision to impose a health pass last July saved 4,000 lives in five months. There were 12,000 Covid deaths in France between July and December. If the vaccination rate had not been rapidly boosted by the health pass, there would have been 16,000.
“Pissing off” (Macron’s phrase) the anti-vaxxers and anti-passers was wholly justified, it appears.
The health-pass study has been widely reported in France but has been overshadowed – doubtless to Macron’s fury – by the media storm over Monsieur Blanquer’s Holiday.
The education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, was revealed on Tuesday to have announced last-minute and disastrous changes to school Covid testing rules while on a short honeymoon in Ibiza.
A second day of teacher and pupil strikes against the new rules is taking place today. Protesters in bikinis and Blanquer face masks – some mistake there, surely? – gathered outside the education ministry.
PARIS – Action en cours devant le Ministère de l’Éducation Nationale.
— Clément Lanot (@ClementLanot) January 19, 2022
The Ibiza saga IS damaging. Blanquer had every right, under the cabinet rules, to take a three-day honeymoon break over the new year. To announce rules that immediately proved unworkable from an upmarket Spanish resort was, as he himself admitted, symbolically stupid.
Macron’s fury is understandable. His decision to keep schools open after the first lockdown has been one of his – and France’s – pandemic successes. The chaos in school testing, which began before Mr Blanquer’s Holiday, has unfairly devalued that achievement.
So what is a poor President, 80 days from the first round a presidential election, to do? Whether he lifts restrictions too soon, or he refuses to lift restrictions, he will be pummelled by his rivals.
Macron has himself sought to use the pandemic for electoral gain at times. And yet his Covid record in the last year – as the 4,000 saved lives proves – is pretty good.
Is the pandemic going to play one last trick on him?