Covid: Is a lockdown for unvaccinated people a possibility in France?

As Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway impose new rules on unvaccinated people, we answer a reader question on whether France is set to do the same

17 November 2021

Could France follow Germany and Austria in imposing restrictions on non-vaccinated people only? Pic: Renata Apanaviciene / Shutterstock

By Hannah Thompson

Reader question: I am not vaccinated against Covid (by choice) and live in France. I have read that in Austria they are imposing a confinement on non-vaccinated people. Could this happen in France?

This appears unlikely. On November 16, government spokesperson Gabriel Attal said: “Absolutely no lockdowns are planned today, either in the short-term or long-term.”

And while both right-wing presidential election candidates Xavier Bertrand and Valérie Pécresse said in a debate last week that they would be in favour of a lockdown for non-vaccinated people, Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire told BFMTV on November 14 that the country “must absolutely avoid a new lockdown”.

In the same interview, he called on people in France to get vaccinated and to “take responsibility” because a new lockdown would “not be good for us, our private life, our society, our children’s morale, for the economy nor for shops that have started back up again”.

LREM president and former Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told the Assemblée nationale that “the majority” would not want to see such an extreme measure imposed in France.

So far, President Emmanuel Macron has also distanced himself from the suggestion.

Could a confinement of unvaccinated people happen in theory? 

Mr Attal has said that he cannot rule the measure out completely. He said: “What 18 months of health crisis have taught me is that we must never rule anything out, on principle.”

Similarly, Mr Castaner said that “all hypotheses are still on the table, as we are facing up to a virus that can surprise us and is still surprising us”.

And president of government advisory body le Conseil scientifique, Jean-François Delfraissy, has already previously suggested the confinement of non-vaccinated people.

Would a lockdown for unvaccinated people be legal?

Legally, under the state of health emergency, the government has the authority to impose a new lockdown up until July 31, 2022.

Yet, any measures imposed to tackle the health crisis in France must have the approval of the constitutional authority, le Conseil constitionnel.

In a statement, the court has previously said: "Regulatory measures...may...only be taken in the interest of public health and for the sole purpose of combating the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic. They must be strictly proportionate to the health risks involved and appropriate to the circumstances…”

It said that the government has a responsibility to ensure that any measures do not overly limit “guaranteed rights and freedoms” in the name of “protecting health”.

Professor Jean-Philippe Derosier, a specialist in constitutional law and professor at the University of Lille, told Le Figaro: "Currently, the only differentiator permitted by the state of health emergency is on a geographical basis.”

Didier Truchet, professor emeritus in public law, told Le Parisien/Aujourd'hui en France that a lockdown that targeted only the non-vaccinated would be “on a knife-edge” legally.

But he said: “But we have seen so many things that seemed impossible since the beginning of this pandemic, that it would [in theory] be possible if the health situation worsened.”

And Professor François Saint-Bonnet, freedom law specialist at the Panthéon-Assas University, told Le Figaro that if data suggested a lockdown for non-vaccinated people would help stop the virus, it could happen in theory.

He said: “If precise and objective epidemiological data are provided, I don't see what could stand in the way. If medical recommendations identify that the non-vaccinated pose a greater risk to the community than the others, nothing will prevent [a lockdown] from complying with the Constitution.”

Would such a lockdown be effective?

Some suggest no.

Professor Pascal Crépey, researcher and epidemiologist at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en santé publique, told 20 Minutes: “Making the non-vaccinated bear the brunt of new measures would not be a miracle cure against the resumption of the epidemic. 

“Of course, coercive measures against them are likely to protect them and reduce the burden of hospitalisations but they could not stop the epidemic dynamic, since vaccination only protects against 50% of the transmission of the virus.”

Professor Derosier said that the lockdown would likely not be very effective. He asked: “What is the purpose of lockdown? Not to protect one's own health, but to prevent the virus from spreading to others. But vaccinated people can also spread the virus.”

Professor Crépey also said that despite Austria’s decision to lock down the non-vaccinated, any similar restrictions imposed in France would likely “not be well-respected” in any case. 

“Increasing constraints on people that are refusing the vaccine would be likely to radicalise” them, and would not change minds, he said.

What measures have been imposed in Austria - and also in Germany and the Netherlands?

Austria has imposed a lockdown for non-vaccinated people in Upper Austria and Salzburg. Unvaccinated people will only be allowed to leave home for limited reasons, like working or buying food.

About 65% of Austria's population is fully vaccinated - one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.

In Germany, Berlin residents are now only allowed to enter restaurants, cinemas, and sports halls if they have been fully vaccinated or recently recovered from the virus.

Infections are rising sharply in the regions of Saxony, Thuringia and Bavaria, and it has been reported that non-vaccinated people will be required to submit to lockdown curbs within days.

Similarly, the Netherlands has confirmed the partial lockdown for three weeks from Saturday (November 13), and also requires restaurants, bars and essential shops such as supermarkets to close at 20:00. Non-essential shops must shut at 18:00.

Norway now requires non-vaccinated health personnel to take a test twice a week and wear masks.

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