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Travel down just 20% in France despite Covid rules

Researchers say that travel has dropped by only 20% in France since February 2020, with significant differences between the first and second lockdowns

The number of journeys people in France are making has gone down by 20% as of February 2021, compared with the same period in 2020, results from a new study lead by public health research organisation Inserm (EPIcx-Lab) in partnership with mobile operator Orange suggest.

This reduced level of travel has remained relatively stable since the beginning of December 2020 - despite initial lockdown measures - and curfew rules that were in place from 20:00 from December 15, and from 18:00 from January 16, 2021.

Researchers drew results from mobile data collected from the Orange mobile network. They divided France into around 1,500 zones, with "a journey" being defined as someone spending at least one hour in one zone, before moving to another zone and spending at least an hour there.

Travel increased during second confinement

During the first confinement, the study shows that journeys within France fell by 65% compared with the same period (starting March 17) the previous year. During the second confinement, beginning in October 30, 2020, this fell to only 35% by the same measure.

The number of journeys being taken also started to rise after only two weeks of the second confinement, compared with five weeks during the first.

And, since January 4, the study found that people in France have been increasing the number of journeys they make, with the 18:00 curfew rule introduced on January 16 having little impact on this. 

Epidemiologist Dr Eugenio Valdano told news source Le Monde: “The last week of confinement and the first week of curfew were very similar in terms of journeys made, which is a sign that people in France were already respecting rules around movement less [than they should have been] by the end of confinement.”

Similarly, travel during 07:00-09:00 went down by 70% during the first confinement and only 20% during the second, although Dr Valdano said: “Opening schools during the second confinement meant more travel [in the morning]. But there were also, without doubt, more journeys made for work.”

Rates of travel fell by 50% from 19:00-23:00 during the second confinement. 

Rules have mixed impact on travel

While travel has gone down overall during the pandemic, national and local health rules have had mixed results.

As the curfew began, there were only 10% fewer journeys during the week compared to the same period the previous year - but other studies such as Google Mobility reports show that trips to offices and on public transport were happening less than before the pandemic. 

Dr Valdano said that since curfew measures have been in place: “It is possible that people in France have reorganised their days [to allow for making journeys] while respecting health measures.” 

However, the study also found that on the weekend of November 10, 2020, long-distance journeys (over 100km) only went down by 16% compared to the same period the previous year – indicating that many people travelled over the long weekend, breaking national confinement rules in place at the time.

This trend towards increasing long journeys has continued. “Traffic between highly-populated towns is systematically higher than during the first confinement,” Dr Valdano said. 


Data reveals regional differences 

The study also found significant differences between geographical areas, with areas where the health risks were perceived as more serious seeing higher reductions in travel.

For example, people in the Ile-de-France reduced their journeys by 72% during the first confinement and 42% during the second – both higher than the national average.

Researchers explained this difference was likely due to socio-economic factors such as the types of jobs people living in a department may have. In places with more office workers, journeys went down as people worked from home, while in areas with more manual labourers, people were less able to do this.

Similarly, wealthier people were found to have travelled less than others, and journeys increased in areas with higher levels of over-occupied housing.

Dr Valdano said: “The link between income and mobility...has in all likelihood contributed to the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on underprivileged people."

He added that the findings could be used to create targeted measures if future lockdowns were necessary, “although this would involve a high level of complexity”. 

If a third lockdown were to be imposed, he said: “It is difficult to predict what would happen. But we can see that respect for restrictions is decreasing over time.”

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