The next few weeks will be crucial to see if France’s current Covid restrictions are “sufficient”, or if a new lockdown may be needed, as the health minister insists the situation is “stable” for now.
Health Minister Olivier Véran said, during a press conference update yesterday: “Pressure remains high but is not rising. The next few weeks will tell us if the current measures are sufficient, or if we must resign ourselves to confinement measures.
“We are making no bets about the future, but we can see that we have already made up time, and we hope to avoid [lockdown].
“The curfew, the respect for physical distancing, the management measures that we have put in place, our strategy of testing, alerting, protecting - which has grown in strength - have already allowed us to slow the UK variant, as they have slowed the spread of the virus in general across our country.”
For the past three weeks, new cases of Covid have remained stable in France, at “around 20,000 cases per day on average”, Dr Véran said.
New hospitalisations are also stable, at around 1,500 new admissions per day and the number of people in intensive care is staying at between 3,000-3,200.
‘Worrying tension on healthcare system’
Yet, in its most recent update on February 11 - with figures for the week of February 1-7 - Santé publique France (SPF) said that the stable number of hospitalisations and intensive care units was “worrying due to the tension placed on the healthcare system over the past few weeks”.
It said that Covid-19 is still “spreading at a very high level in the context of the increased prevalence of [more] contagious variants”.
The national number of cases is between 201 to 207 per 100,000 inhabitants, SPF said. But in the worst-affected areas, such as Grand Est, this figure is at 290.7.
Professor Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health and public health expert, told newspaper Le Monde: “One of the possible explanations [for cases not going down] is that these new variants may require even more effort in order to be able to drop [numbers] completely.”
Some have said that increased health measures, such as a stricter lockdown, may be needed - especially as the new variants spread.
Professor Mircea Sofonea, infectious diseases and epidemiology expert at the University of Montpellier, told Le Monde: “For the moment, the spread seems stable, and there is no reason to believe that it will spontaneously change within the next two weeks.”
But Professor Sofonea said that the country will need “a collective awareness on health measures”, such as a possible lockdown.
SPF has warned that the health situation could get worse in the near future.
It stated: “In the context of the spread of more contagious variants, the hypothesis of the epidemiological situation worsening in the next few weeks is one of the scenarios to envisage.”
Professor Flahault said that there is a “risk that the spread of the variants causes an exponential rise”.
Professor Mahmoud Zureik, epidemiologist and public health expert at the university of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines appeared to agree, and said that a lockdown would be needed in this case.
He said: “With the variants, we have a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. When the level of contamination is high, it can change very quickly, and when it goes over 20,000 new cases per day, it’s uncontrolled.
“We will not be able to get back to normal life without a brutal brake on the spread of the virus, which includes a new lockdown, probably the last one. Without this, we will not stop with this permanent back-and-forth.”
The health minister has not ruled out a new lockdown if necessary, despite France repeatedly saying that it is aiming to avoid the scenario.
Dr Véran said: “We will take responsibility if we see an exponential rise in cases and a real risk of hospital saturation. But this is not the case for the moment.”
Relaxing on rules?
It comes amid suggestions that people may be adhering less strictly to physical distancing rules and travelling more.
Train company SNCF said that it had sold 800,000 TGV tickets last week, as school holidays begin for Zone C tomorrow (February 13). This is almost as many tickets as for the same time in 2019.
Almost three-quarters of journeys booked are heading towards the southeast of the country, or the Atlantic coast, SNCF said, suggesting that people are taking holidays despite the virus.
Cross-country coach company Flixbus has also reported a 50% rise in reservations since February 4.
The GP network Sentinelles has also reported a mild rise in gastroenteritis cases among crèches and écoles in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, despite people wearing masks and washing hands more, with some suggesting this could be due to a lack of physical distancing.
It could be explained by a drop in certain barrier measures, SPF said, basing its conclusion on the results of its most recent CoviPrev inquiry. CoviPrev is a study monitoring behaviours and mental health during the Covid crisis. It found that in November 2020, 81.8% of people were avoiding social gatherings, compared to 68.5% in January 2021.
The drop in people working from home, as condemned by the government, could also help explain the spread of Covid and other viral conditions, it said.
And Dr Gérald Kierzek, emergency medicine doctor at the Hôtel-Dieu (AP-HP) in Paris, said that the reappearance of conditions such as gastroenteritis was actually “a good thing”.
He told news network LCI: “It means that Covid is weakening, and there is some competition in the viral ecosystem.”