European leaders will tonight discuss how to deal with the spread of new Covid-19 variants, as leading scientists suggest that France will “not be able to escape” a third lockdown in the near future.
EU member states will meet via video call from 18:00 tonight to discuss issues such as how to best respond to the threat of new variants, how to increase the speed of vaccination, and the possible introduction of a common health certificate for travel within the bloc.
Several European countries - including the Netherlands and Germany - have increased restrictions in a bid to limit the spread of the new Covid-19 variants, which were first identified in the UK and South Africa and are estimated to be between 50-75% more contagious than the previous strain.
It comes as pressure is mounting in France over the possibility of a new lockdown.
Professor Renaud Piarroux, epidemiologist researcher at the Institut Pierre-Louis, paediatrician, infectious diseases specialist, and head of service at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, has told news service FranceInfo that the country will not “escape a reconfinement”.
He said: “[It needs to be] earlier, more effective, and shorter.”
He had advocated for the new lockdown to be put in place within the next few days, especially in light of the new UK variant.
He said: “By the month of March, the UK variant will be dominant. From the moment the new variant is on top, it will control the speed [of the spread]. It will rise quickly. We are not seeing a drop or a stabilisation of cases, but a rise.”
In the past 24 hours, there were 26,784 more cases confirmed in France, and 316 deaths, showed the latest figures from Santé publique France.
Leaders have never ruled out the idea completely if the health situation worsens, but have sought to avoid it. In early January, government spokesperson Gabriel Attal told radio channel Europe 1: “At this stage, there is no reconfinement planned… but we are following the situation attentively.”
Similarly, in early January, members of the PandemIA association published an open letter in newspaper Le Monde calling for an end to “stop and go” confinements in France in the face of the “changing nature of the virus”, and had even called for a new lockdown as early as mid-January.
They noted the “much more infectious” nature of the UK and South African variants of the virus, and wrote: “We fear that worsening of the current Covid wave will require the imposition of a new confinement [...]. Strict and early confinement is the best weapon against viral propagation, even if it is increasingly difficult for people in France to live through.
“We are not yet finished with Covid-19.”
No current lockdown plans
But this week, Mr Attal said: “There will be no change in the national restrictions this week.”
Ministers will - as usual - continue to hold weekly defence council meetings with President Macron on the situation. Tonight, Health Minister Olivier Véran will deliver an update on the current status of the epidemic, and the vaccination rollout, instead of Prime Minister Jean Castex.
A government source told newspaper Le Figaro: “We are on an upwards curve. Hospital pressure is starting to be felt. The major unknowns are these variants, because there is a possibility that they will spread in an exponential manner.
“If there is a significant rise next week, it is possible that we might take [harsher] measures. The situation is under control at this stage, but it is not certain for the future.”
Dr Karine Lacombe, head of infectious diseases at the Saint-Antoine hospital, said: “We are expecting that the month of March will be very hard.”
As for when society may begin to reopen should the epidemic continue to stay under control, Mr Attal has said that the government is seeking to make a decision as soon as possible.
Bars and restaurants had been set to reopen on January 20, but this was postponed indefinitely.
Mr Attal said: “We are looking to give the maximum notice, for most sectors, on the visibility that we can give them on their reopening.”