Medical professionals in France are urging people to exercise caution when Covid-related restrictions are eased further on March 14.
This latest stage of rule relaxations will see vaccine pass requirements removed, although health passes will remain in health and care settings, where masks will also continue to be obligatory. Elsewhere, mask-wearing will become optional everywhere apart from on public transport.
The change comes as French infection rates stop decreasing and begin creeping upwards once again, causing concern among some experts.
In the week up to Tuesday (March 8), an average of 52,715 new cases had been reported each day in France, marking an increase of 7.5% on the previous week.
Yesterday, 69,190 infections were detected. However, hospitalisations and transfers to intensive care are not yet rising in proportion.
Une reprise épidémique semble débuter, mais il va falloir attendre quelques jours avant de l'affirmer. Le nombre de cas publié aujourd'hui est en hausse (+7,5%) par rapport à celui de lundi dernier. En moyenne sur la semaine écoulée, le nombre de cas continue de baisser (-7,5%). pic.twitter.com/g9ld7WcPQT— GRZ (@GuillaumeRozier) March 7, 2022
A premature decision?
“We are in an unprecedented situation in terms of managing a wave: we have announced that the game has been won one month in advance,” said Benjamin Davido, who is an infectious diseases specialist at the Raymond-Poincaré de Garches hospital in Hauts-de-Seine.
“This will inevitably lead people to relax their behaviour well before the date [that restrictions are lifted],” he added.
“They have made promises in the context of an election, that’s the problem.”
While the rise in case numbers may be partly due to people in France growing less observant of infection-control measures, it can also be attributed to the return to school after the February break.
This has led to greater social contact between pupils and families, all amid less stringent school Covid protocols.
The effect of this is reflected in the fact that infection rates have risen more sharply in Zone B (including Aix-Marseille, Amiens, Lille, Metz, Nantes, Nice and Rennes), which was the first to return to school after the holidays.
Epidemiologist Professor Antoine Flahault has criticised the fact that restrictions are being eased “according to a calendar and not on [epidemiological] indicators.”
Will rule relaxation criteria be met?
Health Minister Olivier Véran had stated that vaccine pass rules would only be lifted when certain criteria were met.
This included the country having an R number of less than 1 (more than 1 suggests that the virus is still spreading), an infection rate of less than 500 per 100,000 people, and less than 1,500 Covid patients in critical care.
“By March 14, we won’t be there,” Prof Flahault said. France’s R rate is below 1 – at 0.8 – but its infection rate is currently 546 per 100,000, Santé publique France reports, and there are 1,962 patients in intensive care according to government-approved information service CovidTracker.
However, the concern felt by medical experts is still only slight at this point, with Dr Davido saying that the rise in cases is currently only “background noise” in his hospital.
There is, of course, generally a delay of about 10 days between being infected with the virus and then being admitted to hospital, and so this situation could change in the coming days.
“Many people, most notably the young and the fully vaccinated, are not at high risk. But there are still issues such as long Covid and the situation of vulnerable people, who are now being left to their own devices,” said Prof Flahault, who would be in favour of extending compulsory mask-wearing indoors.
“The problem is not the next fortnight,” he added, arguing that the challenge which the authorities must now confront is finding a long-term strategy which will serve to control virus spread and prevent huge infection and hospital admission waves.