It was “coherent” for the French to take the decision to stop holiday visits from the UK, says a French member of an official scientific advisory group on Covid to the UK government.
Dr Marc Baguelin, an infectious diseases specialist at Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said there are legitimate concerns over the spread of the ‘Indian’ variant in the UK.
“You could argue the number of cases is very low, but I don’t think it’s true that it’s only in a few pockets, it’s actually relatively widespread now,” he said.
“That has evolved quite a bit, as in the beginning it was mostly in Bolton [in Greater Manchester] and London.
“There are also indications that this variant spreads even more easily than the previous ones. It’s unclear exactly how much, but it looks like it’s more transmissible and also potentially the vaccine is less good at preventing it.
“So, altogether it seems worse so I can understand why the French authorities want to limit importation of it in order to progress with the vaccination programme.”
A study by Public Health England, notably, had recently compared the efficacy of the vaccine against the Indian variant with the efficacy against the 'UK' variant, Dr Baguelin said. “The AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines were tested and were found to have a reduced efficacy against the new variant, though the efficacy was still relatively high.”
Some fear that it could lead to another wave of the virus in the UK this summer, he said. Even so, given the low overall rates in the UK at present, the threat may turn out to be small.
“However what characterises the situation at the moment is a lot of uncertainty. So, political considerations probably come into the balance as well.
“The French government wants to be seen as being on the cautious side.”
Dr Baguelin, a member of the modelling sub-group of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said the French would want to avoid a repeat of what happened earlier in the year when case numbers were lowering in France before the ‘UK variant’ arrived and became the most prevalent one.
“Especially as they are rolling out their vaccination programme. It’s picking up and they don’t want to compromise that.
“However I guess that things will change once we know more about the variant and once France increases its vaccination coverage sufficiently to take that into account. If cases remain very low in the UK then they would probably revise their position.
“There may also be measures coming in France depending on travellers’ status – as to whether they are vaccinated or not,” he said.
“There is an economic element to consider as well – they want people to come and visit, so there’s a fine balance between not wanting a resurgence of a bad variant and at the same time it’s not in their interest to block travellers coming indefinitely.”
He added: “I hope they put something in place [to allow British visitors to return], because it’s true the number of cases is low in the UK and vaccination is quite high.
“But at the same time I can understand the French government’s logic. It’s really a race between vaccinating and opening up the economy.”