Covid restrictions ease slightly in France today (February 2), with outdoor mask-wearing ceasing to be mandatory and the three days of remote working imposed each week moving from obligation to recommendation.
This comes against a background of high Covid case numbers and hospitalisations but stable – although still high – numbers of patients in intensive care.
The government is advising caution despite the rules relaxations, in part due to questions surrounding the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron.
Capacity limits at sports and cultural events are also lifted from today when the audience is seated but masks must be worn in these events.
Crowd limits had previously been set at 2,000 people indoors and 5,000 people outdoors.
The government announced the changes on January 20 and maintained them despite Covid infection rates remaining high.
Over the last week, an average of 322,256 new infections have been recorded each day in France. This compares to 366,179 cases per day the previous week.
Yesterday (February 1), there were 416,896 new cases reported, but the previous day there had only been 82,657 (however a lower number is usual after the weekend as some laboratories are closed), and a slight downward trend in infections is beginning to emerge.
The number of people with Covid being treated in intensive care units has remained stable – hovering around 3,750 – but hospital admissions continue to rise as they continue to catch up with the surging case numbers of recent weeks.
It should also be noted that some people who are admitted to hospital with Covid will actually be treated principally for something else, making their positive Covid status a secondary issue.
“For a few days we have been observing a still slight reversal in the trend, with fewer cases reported [on average] each day than in the previous week,” government spokesperson Gabriel Attal said yesterday.
He added that this is “a very encouraging sign” but that people should remain cautious, partly because “we know that there are questions surrounding the BA.2 subvariant, which is also very contagious.”
Mr Attal also said that school Covid rules “will be adapted after the February break and we will work for a relaxation, we won’t be reinforcing [restrictions].”
This will be discussed at a Conseil de défense sanitaire Covid crisis council meeting today, where ministers will consider easing school restrictions on February 21 or on March 7.
Gilles Pialoux, who is head of the infectious diseases unit at Paris’ Hôpital Tenon, said of the rule relaxation that: “This is a political decision in a health situation which is evolving very slowly and where everyone is dreaming of the world after Covid.
“We have the impression that we have not arrived at a decline in cases but rather at a plateau.”
When will other restrictions be lifted?
In two weeks (February 16) nightclubs will reopen after being forced to close on December 10. Standing concerts will also be allowed to take place once again, as will the consumption of drinks while standing in bars or cafés.
Finally, people will also be permitted to eat and drink in stadiums, cinemas and on public transport.
President Emmanuel Macron said in a Voix du Nord interview yesterday that this stage will most likely take place as planned, although he did not detail the criteria that the government is using to determine whether relaxing restrictions is sensible or not.
WHO warns against letting go completely
The gradual easing of France’s Covid restrictions comes as Denmark lifts all of its domestic restrictions, with the authorities stating that the virus no longer poses a “critical threat” because of the country’s high vaccination rate. This is in spite of a continually high infection rate.
However, the World Health Organisation’s director-general has warned that it would be “premature” for countries to believe that Covid has been beaten.
“More transmission means more deaths,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We are worried by the fact that certain countries have begun to believe that – thanks to the vaccines and Omicron’s high transmissibility and reduced severity – preventing transmission is no longer feasible.
“This could not be further from the truth. We are not asking any countries to reinstate lockdowns, but we are calling on all countries to protect their population by using all the available tools, and not just vaccines.”
Since Omicron first emerged at the end of last year, nearly 90 million cases of the variant have been reported to the WHO.