Christmas data, the ‘English variant’ of Covid-19 and the vaccination latest – health experts say that this week is key in determining whether France will need to enact stricter health measures.
Since lockdown in France was lifted on 15 December, health restrictions here in France have remained broadly unchanged. A much-hoped-for reopening of bars, restaurants, gyms and cultural centres later in January has been ruled out and the only extra restriction put in place has been the introduction of an earlier curfew (06:00pm) in 23 of France’s 96 mainland départements, including here on the French Riviera.
But there are two factors that could change this – a post-Christmas spike and the variant anglais, the new and seemingly more contagious variant of the virus first identified in the UK. Health experts have said that key data on both of these things will be arriving on the health minister’s desk this week, influencing what the government does next as we’re still in an extremely unstable epidemiological situation which could turn into exponential growth.
French health officials have been worried about what they call the ‘Thanksgiving effect’ – the big spike in cases seen in the USA after people travelled to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with friends and family. In France the lockdown was lifted just before Christmas and people were allowed to travel over the holidays, although restrictions including an 8pm curfew remained in place and people were advised to limit private gatherings to six people. Nonetheless, there is concern that increased travel and socialising will lead to a spike in cases.
Statistics from over the holiday period fluctuated with lower reporting on weekends and public holidays and cumulative case numbers reported on several days. Testing saw a big increase in the week before Christmas – three million people were tested in a single week, the highest number of tests done so far – but fell over the holiday period, leading to variations in the positivity rate.
French schools reopened last Monday (4 January), and most people went back to work on the same date so the Health Ministry now has a week’s worth of ‘normal’ data that will establish what, if any, effect Christmas has had on case numbers. Overall, the weekly average for case numbers last week was 15,859 new cases per day, compared to 13,258 the previous week, although this hides big regional variations and an increasingly concerning situation in some parts of eastern France.
The ‘English mutation’
A new and potentially more contagious variant of the Covid-19 virus first identified across the channel is also causing concern across Europe. France has identified several clusters of the mutation, including in Paris, Brittany and a group in Marseille reported to be an extended family.
Laboratories have stepped up genetic sequencing of PCR tests to get a clearer picture of how many cases there are in France and the country’s UK border remains closed to non-essential travel ‘until further notice’.
Anyone entering France from the UK needs a negative Covid test, but there are concerns that the new variant was already spreading in the country before extra testing requirements were introduced.
A study by the National Reference Centre for Respiratory Viruses in Lyon, expected at the beginning of the week, will make it possible to estimate the number of cases in France.
The mutation does not seem to produce more serious symptoms, but is said to be more infectious, potentially leading to more cases and the saturation of health services.
After a widely-criticized sluggish start, France will continue to speed up its vaccination programme. From tomorrow, people aged over 70 will be able to make appointments by phone or online at sante.fr, with appointments starting on 18 January.
The first deliveries of the Moderna vaccine arrived in France on Monday andfrom today will available in clinics in the eastern parts of the country that have been hardest hit by the virus. However, the vaccination programme will not have a direct effect on case numbers over the next few weeks, so will not play a major part in decisions on extra restrictions.
The French government is holding several meetings this week to analyse the latest data and weigh up its options.
Also expected this week is the latest report from the advisory Scientific Council, dealing with proposed measures over the next three months. An announcement from the PM M Castex is expected towards the end of this week where all options – from closing shops and schools to a reintroduction of lockdown – will be on the table.
I’m making the most of what might be my last week of freedom by going out for a long walk or ride every day, just in case!