French health professionals are hoping to learn more this week about the spread of a new contagious variant of the coronavirus, as officials said they would do everything possible to avoid another strict lockdown like the one imposed in Britain.
As case numbers and hospital admissions slowly rise and the spectre of a more contagious strain of the coronavirus darkens the coming weeks, France’s government reassured on that Monday it was not preparing for another lockdown, for the time being.
“At this moment, no new confinement is planned but we are obviously following the situation closely,” said government spokesperson Gabriel Attal.
“We see what is happening around us where a number of countries have had to go back into lockdown. The virus has spread two to three times more than it has here, because France has made a lot of effort and took early decisions, but we must not let our guard down.”
Attal’s remarks came a day after Health Minister Olivier Véran said France was taking “proportionate measures” against a “slow growth in the spread of the virus” and assured there would be no confinement in the immediate future.
Case numbers rising
Epidemic indicators from public health agencies show trends of slow but steady growth in both case numbers and hospital admissions.
New daily cases are averaging just over 18,000, climbing slowly from around 10,000 in early December, and far from the objective of 5,000 cases per day set by French President Emmanuel Macron as a condition for easing restrictions in late November.
There has been a slight uptick in the number of hospital admissions over the past week, though the total number of hospitalised Covid patients, recorded at 24,559 on Sunday evening, has been stable since early December.
Admissions peaked at 33,497 during the second wave on 16 November and 32,292 during the first wave on 14 April.
Numbers of patients in intensive care remain within the range of 2,500 to 3,000 that Macron had set as a second condition. There were 2,629 ICU patients as of Sunday evening.
Whether these trends remain stable will be evident throughout the coming week, which will show whether the virus, including the more contagious variant identified in Britain in December, spread widely over the holiday period.
France’s government lifted the second lockdown on 15 December, but put off reopening cultural sites such as theatres and cinemas, which will remain closed until at least the end of January.
With an 8pm-to-6am curfew being the only constraint on travel or gatherings over the holidays, the government recommended keeping festivities to small groups and maintaining preventative measures, such as avoiding close contact, wearing masks and ventilating indoor spaces.
Health Minister Véran said Sunday everything would be done to ensure France avoids the same situation as Britain.
Eight administrative departments in eastern France have joined 15 others in advancing the start of their curfews to 6pm, including the region surrounding Marseille, where the variant was detected in about 10 members of one extended family.
'Epidemic within an epidemic'
Researchers will seek this week to analyse test results in an attempt to verify the variant’s spread in France as cases have also been confirmed in the Alps and the northern city of Lille.
One epidemiologist on the French government’s scientific advisory panel for Covid-19 said that the country should consider going farther and closing its borders with Britain and other countries with a high presence of the new variant.
“It is important that we consider whether we need to close the borders to a limited number of countries, notably the United Kingdom and Ireland,” Arnaud Fontanet told BFM television.
“It is not up to the scientific council to decide this, but we want to raise the issue,” said Fontanet, who said the new variant was like “a new epidemic within the epidemic”.
Fontanet warned the number of cases will rise in the coming weeks.