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COVID-19 STATS

‘Peak has passed’ as France lifts Covid restrictions

France on Wednesday loosened several of the restrictions imposed to curb the latest Covid surge, with authorities hoping a recent decline in daily cases will soon ease pressure on overburdened hospitals.

'Peak has passed' as France lifts Covid restrictions
Photo: Philippe Lopez/AFP

The move has divided experts after authorities reported record coronavirus infections just last month, with critics accusing the government of making a hasty bet on a return to normality.

But President Emmanuel Macron is betting that widespread vaccinations will curb the pandemic, with proof of inoculation now required for the health pass used to access everything from bars and restaurants to cinemas and long-distance public transport.

The government says more than 90 percent of adults are vaccinated, and booster shots or proof of recovery from Covid will be required to retain the new vaccine pass — a recent negative test result is no longer accepted.

From Wednesday, wearing face masks outdoors will no longer be mandatory, and audience capacity limits have been lifted for theatres, concerts, sporting matches and other events. Working from home is also no longer required, though it remains strongly recommended.

READ ALSO What changes on Wednesday as Covid restrictions lift 

A second stage of easing is set for February 16th.

CALENDAR When France’s Covid restrictions are lifted

Authorities view the threat of the Omicron variant as less dangerous than previous strains of the virus, even though it is more contagious.

“We have seen a weak reversal of the trend over the past few days, with fewer cases declared each day than seven days earlier,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal told France Info radio on Tuesday.

An average of 322,256 cases were recorded over the previous seven days, according to latest figures, down from 366,179 a week ago.

Attal called it a “very encouraging signal” but said officials “remain cautious” because of a “very contagious” sub-variant of Omicron, BA.1, that appears to have delayed the peak of infections in other countries.

France also still has some 3,750 Covid patients in intensive care, above the government’s target of 3,000, and on average the country is seeing 261 Covid deaths at hospitals every day.

The Paris region of Ile-de France, which was the first area to start reporting large numbers of Omicron cases, is showing a clear decline as case numbers, as seen in the below graph by journalist Nicolas Berrod, with Ile-de-France in red.

Across France as a whole (the dotted line) the fall is less pronounced as many areas are still reporting rising case numbers.

The below map from Le Parisien shows the areas where the incidence rate is falling (in blue) and rising (in yellow, orange and red).

“We’ve clearly passed the peak, we hope the decline will be quick. But we’re coming from stratospheric levels, so this wave is still far from over,” the epidemiologist Mahmoud Zureik told French daily Le Parisien on Wednesday.

As of Tuesday, France had recorded 131,312 Covid deaths since the beginning of the outbreak.

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COVID-19

EXPLAINED: Why Covid cases are rising again in France

France on Monday removed many of its remaining Covid rules, but even before that date case numbers were rising. So why is this happening? And is it something that we need to be worried about?

EXPLAINED: Why Covid cases are rising again in France

“Infections will rise again for 10 to 15 days,” Health Minister Olivier Véran told Franceinfo on Wednesday, two days after the country had done away with the vaccine pass and lifted mask rules in most areas.

“What the modelling of the Institut Pasteur tells us is that it will indeed go up until the end of March, we risk reaching 120,000 to 150,000 infections per day, and then we can expect a decrease,” he went on.

But he insisted the government had made the “right decision” in choosing to end most restrictions earlier than anticipated and in spite of an apparent epidemic rebound, saying “there is no risk of saturation of hospitals“.

So what’s happening?

Cases

Daily Covid numbers in France reached record highs in January, when an average of more than 366,000 new cases a day were recorded.

Current figures are well below that, but still high. On Tuesday, France reported more than 116,000 new cases in the previous 24 hours – a marked rise on the figure of 93,050 recorded the same day a week previously, and breaking the 100,000 barrier for the first time since mid-February.

The daily average figure – which irons out statistical quirks such as delayed reporting at weekends – is 65,143, a 25 percent increase on the previous week.

Map: Covidtracker.fr

“More than 50 percent” of new cases are due to the sub-variant of Omicron, BA.2, which is “more transmissible” but less severe, the Conseil scientifique said. 

Hospitalisations

The number of people being hospitalised with the virus has started ticking up again, after falling from a peak of 2,900 per day in early February. On March 13th, there were 973 new patients in hospital.

“High vaccination rates have made it possible to limit the hospital impact of these infections,” the Conseil said.

But about 4 million adult people remain unvaccinated and almost 5 million have not had a booster dose.

“The number of hospitalisations will increase temporarily in the coming weeks,” it added.

Admissions to intensive care and death rates both continue to decline, but usually any effect on these figures is not felt until at least two weeks after case numbers begin to rise.

European trend

France is not the only country that is seeing an uptick in cases, Germany, Austria, the UK, Belgium and Italy have all reported rises in recent days.

School holidays

Since the relaxation of the French rules only happened on Monday, it is clearly not the source of the increase.

Rather, regional variations in the spread of the virus indicates that schools reopening after the winter holidays has been a key driver of the latest rise in infections.

Schools in France are divided into three zones and take their February holiday at different times.

Guillaume Rozier, founder of the CovidTracker website, told AFP at the weekend. “The rise in cases is most apparent in northern France and along the Mediterranean coast, roughly corresponding to the areas where children returned to school earliest (on February 21st).”

Upticks in Covid figures have been spotted, too, in zones A and C, which returned to class later.

Spring

“The current cold climate remains an element that favours viral transmission. This should improve in the coming weeks with the arrival of the good weather,” says the Conseil scientifique.

As the weather improves and temperatures rise, socialising and activities tend to move outdoors, where the transmission risk is lower. This follows the pattern also seen in 2020 and 2021 when the virus receded in the summer, before returning in autumn.

Not a wave

“This rebound is not a wave,” says Véran. However he added: “The end of the obligation does not mean the end of vigilance. I invite French women and men to wear the mask in all circumstances which may expose them or those around them to the risk of infection.”

Institut Pasteur forecasts published on March 10th suggest that “in all the scenarios explored, the peak of cases [in March] remains much lower than the peak in January”. 

Experts are also confident that the combination of vaccinations and immunity because of previous infection will keep serious cases to a minimum.

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