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What are France’s red zones and vulnerable departments?

There are now 21 French departments classified as being in the red zone and 52 departments deemed vulnerable. We explain the difference and what it means for people living there.

On Thursday (August 27), Prime Minister Jean Castex added 19 new departments to the ‘red zone’, bringing the total up to 21. 

In the simplest terms, the classification of 'red zone' means that coronavirus is actively circulating in that department.

The decision to classify a department as ‘red’ is taken by the prime minister. This is different to the level of vulnerability of a department which is decided on by the public health body Santé Publique France. This is a key difference as the two classifications are similar but not the same. 

A spokesperson for the health ministry (Ministère des Solidarités et de la Santé) told Connexion that the vulnerability assessment is purely an “epidemiological analysis” based on various indicators, whereas the red zone, or active circulation zone, is a category provided for in law “so that appropriate measures can be taken to combat the epidemic”. 

This means that if a department is placed in the red zone, the prefect of that department is granted additional authority to introduce restrictions to prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

These include restrictions on people travelling more than 100km from their homes or even leaving the department all together, except for essential reasons. This could be travelling for work, taking children to school, for health reasons, to care for vulnerable relatives and for legal reasons. 

There could be limitations on access to public transport.

Prefects can also temporarily close certain categories of public establishments or meeting places, when they cannot accommodate people safely. This could include shops, cinemas, theatres, cafés, restaurants, museums, public squares, markets etc. 

Classifying a department as vulnerable does not carry with it any new legal powers. It is in place to warn people about the dangers of the virus in their area, and to help inform the decisions of local and national authorities. 

How are red zones and vulnerability levels chosen

The decision to label a department as a red zone is not the result of an algorithm, the health ministry spokesperson stated. 

They said that it is based on an epidemiological assessment that uses indicators such as hospital crowding, the number of tests carried out, the rate of test positivity and changes in the number of clusters etc. 

The main indicator that the government looks at, though, is the incidence rate of the virus. If more than 50 out of 100,000 people test positive for the virus in a department, it is likely to be added to the red zone. 

The department may also be put in the red zone even if its incidence rate is lower than 50, as a precaution or in anticipation of the incidence rate reaching 50. 

The method used to deem a department ‘red’ is the same as Santé Publique France uses to classify a department's vulnerability. 

Santé Publique France gives departments two tiers of labels, moderate vulnerability or elevated vulnerability. 35 departments are in a situation of moderate vulnerability and 17 are in a situation of elevated vulnerability. 

Santé Publique France says that it carries out a daily, in-context analysis of risks, department by department, in cooperation with local health authorities. 

Departments of moderate vulnerability: Ain, Ariège, Aude, Alpes de Haute Provence, Aube, Bas-Rhin, Corse du Sud, Côte d’Or, Drôme, Essonne, Gard, Gers, Haute-Garonne, Haute-Savoie, Hautes Pyrénées, Ille-et-Vilaine, Isère, Eure-et-Loir, Loire-Atlantique, Lot et Garonne, Indre et Loire, Mayenne, Mayotte, Meurthe et Moselle, Moselle, Nord, Oise, Pyrénées Atlantique, Pyrénées Orientales, Réunion, Maine-et-Loire, Seine et Marne, Tarn, Tarn-et-Garonne, Yvelines.

Departments of elevated vulnerability: Alpes-Maritimes, Bouches-du-Rhône, Gironde, Guyane, Hauts-de-Seine, Hérault, Loiret, Paris, Rhône, Sarthe, Seine-Saint-Denis, Val-de-Marne, Val d'Oise, Var, Vaucluse, Martinique, Guadeloupe (including Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthélémy).

Living in a red zone or vulnerable department?

If any new restrictions are brought in by the department’s prefect, these will be communicated to the public, just as when the nationwide lockdown was brought in earlier in the year. 

People can check with their local mairie, or look at their city's social media pages. 

Besides the new rules, the government advice to people has not changed, a spokeswoman for Santé Publique France told Connexion

“Whatever the level of classification of the department, the first response in the face of the virus is to respect physical distancing measures, barrier gestures and the use of masks.”

Read more about coronavirus in France: 

Coronavirus: What do the latest updates mean for France?

Coronavirus: 21 French departments now in the 'red zone'

France targets 1 million covid tests: what to do if positive

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