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COVID-19 RULES

French health minister reveals the conditions to lift Covid restrictions

France's health minister has laid out the criteria that must be met before further relaxations of the country's Covid rules can take place.

French health minister reveals the conditions to lift Covid restrictions
France's Health Minister Olivier Veran. Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP

In recent weeks France has relaxed several of its Covid-related rules and another change – a relaxation on mask rules – comes into force on Monday, February 28th

However two major restrictions remain in place; the requirement for a vaccine pass to enter a wide range of venues and mask rules in many indoor venues.

CALENDAR: When is France relaxing Covid rules?

These rules currently have no end date, but in recent weeks government figures have talked about ending them as soon as mid March.

But now the health minister Olivier Véran, in a presentation to the Senate, has laid out three criteria that must be met before these rules can be relaxed or scrapped altogether.

They are:

  • Fewer than 1,500 Covid patients in intensive care across the country;
  • An incidence rate (cases per 100,000 people) of between 300 and 500;
  • An R rate below 1.

He added that if present trends continue, those goals could still be met by mid March or early April, but that a relaxation of the rules would not come before the middle of March.

Current stats

On Tuesday, France had 2,904 Covid patients in intensive care, a 12 percent fall on the week before and the continuation of a slow but steady decline observed over the past few weeks.

Having more than 3,000 Covid patients in hospital is regarded as a danger point, at which health services begin to struggle to cope and routine operations may need to be postponed in some areas. The current ICU occupancy for Covid patients is 57 percent.

Graphs from Covidtracker.fr show, left, Covid patients in intensive care and, right, hospital Covid deaths. Graph: Covidtracker.fr

The national incidence rate is 884 although areas including the south west of France and the north east areas on the Belgian border are still reporting a rate of over 1,000 cases per 100,000 people.

The incidence rate has been steadily declining overall, but a faster fall has been recorded in areas such as Paris, where the Omicron wave peaked earlier.

This map from Covidtracker.fr shows the incidence rate by département – orange is between 500 and 1,000, red is over 1,000. Map: Covidtracker.fr

The current incidence rate is 0.57, well within the minister’s target. Covid case numbers have been falling rapidly for several weeks, albeit from an extremely high rate at the peak. 

Targets

At previous points in the pandemic French authorities have imposed targets around case numbers and hospitalisation rates that needed to be met before restrictions could be relaxed.

These have generally been followed, although the lifting of lockdown in time for Christmas 2020 went ahead, despite the case rate target not quite being met.

The French government had initially been talking about July as a possible date for lifting restrictions, before several ministers floated the idea of April or May – this lead to accusations of electioneering, as Macron was accused of wanting to bring in popular moves just ahead of the presidential elections in April.

Little detail has been given on what new rules will look like, so we don’t know whether we’re talking about a complete end to mask rules and the vaccine pass or simply a relaxation.

Véran said the vaccine pass will be lifted in “all or part of the places where it is required”.

Testing and self-isolation

So far there has been no political discussion around changing the rules for self-isolation in case of a positive Covid test, or changing the rules on free Covid tests.

Tests are currently free to all fully vaccinated residents of France who are registered within the French health system, and can be accessed for any reason (including travel).

Unvaccinated residents only qualify for free tests if they have symptoms or are a contact case, while tourists are required to pay for tests in all circumstances. The government has capped the price of tests at €22 for an antigen test or €54 for a PCR test. Home-test kits sell for a maximum of €6, but since February 15th can only be bought in pharmacies.

Vaccines

Véran also told the Senate that at present there was no evidence that people who are not in high-risk groups require a second vaccine booster shot, and these would continue being offered only to high-risk groups such as people with long-term illnesses.

However he added that if a dangerous new variant arose making a fourth dose necessary, the government’s “hand would not tremble”. 

The vaccine is available to everyone aged five and over in France.

Travel

Véran did not mention any relaxation of travel rules and these tend to be discussed separately from domestic French rules.

France recently lifted the requirement for a negative Covid test for all fully-vaccinated arrivals, meaning that if you’re vaccinated you can travel to France relatively easily.

However non-vaccinated arrivals are still banned from all orange and red list countries – which includes most non-EU countries including the UK, USA and Canada – unless they meet the criteria for essential travel.

There are no current plans to change this.

You can follow all the latest travel rules announcements HERE.

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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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