Lockdown confusion: France’s new Covid-19 rules raise questions, satisfy few

·9-min read

Nearly a third of France's population on Saturday entered what Prime Minister Jean Castex billed as a "lockdown" – the country's third since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – amid a sharp spike in new infections, many with new variants. But confusion over the new measures continues to reign, with many even debating whether the term "lockdown" is appropriate for the limited restrictions imposed.

Is it a lockdown after all?

During Thursday's press conference announcing the new restrictions, Castex explicitly used the word "confinement" (or lockdown), leading French media to reprise the term. But other ministers were quick to suggest the new measures were simply a tightening of restrictions.

"Can we call this a third lockdown?" Health Minister Olivier Véran, who joined Castex at Thursday's press conference, asked aloud. "I don't know what we should call the measures being taken. But there is a key difference, which is that we are turning more to the outdoors."

"We want to put the brakes on the virus without locking ourselves away, without being confined," President Emmanuel Macron elaborated on Friday, rejecting the term "lockdown". "We have to learn to live with [the virus]; I've been saying this for a year."

Over the weekend Véran continued to walk back the term.

"We aren't stopping people from going outside, we are limiting gatherings indoors. Walking in a park, riding a bike ... We need those [activities] so we don't crack. The new measures bridge the gap between physical and mental health as the pandemic persists," the health minister told French daily Le Parisien.

Lockdown light light?

The fresh measures, affecting 21 million people or almost a third of France's population, contrast starkly with the first French lockdown – when schools, parks and all-but-essential shops were shuttered nationwide from March 17 to May 10. The new rules are also less restrictive than those of the second, "light" lockdown of November and December which never did meet Macron's stated objective of bringing registered new infections below 5,000 per day.

The restrictions imposed as of midnight from Friday to Saturday on 16 administrative departments for four weeks include limiting travel outside one's home department without a "compelling" or professional reason. The measures concern 15 contiguous departments stretching from eastern Normandy and the greater Paris area northwest to the Belgian border and to a lone southeast department, Alpes-Maritimes, which includes the city of Nice. The Saturday cut-off for travel beyond the locked-down departments saw a 20 percent rise in expected train reservations on Friday as some endeavoured to escape while they could.

The new measures also limit the freedom to take a walk or practise sport to a radius of 10km from one's home and with no time limit between 6am and 7pm, up from the one-hour/one-kilometre limit that largely characterised previous lockdowns. For a sense of scale it bears noting that, from the centre of Paris, a 10km radius stretches far beyond the city limits in every direction.

Castex initially announced that the same "attestation" regime would apply for those outings as it did during previous lockdowns – requiring joggers, dog-walkers and others to fill out and sign a document stating the time and reason for leaving home before each and every outing. But that requirement was quickly scrapped on Saturday after the Interior Ministry weathered ridicule over the baffling complexity of its two-page printable permission slip, which provided check boxes alongside no fewer than 15 authorised reasons for outings, each described in very technical language. Permission slips remain required for other outings, but the 10km stroll now only necessitates identification with proof of address.

The new rules also suspend in-person browsing in certain non-essential shops, although the exceptions have been expanded this time to include bookshops, music shops, car dealerships, hairdressers, florists and, with the Easter holiday approaching, chocolate shops. Click-and-collect is permitted for businesses forced to clear their aisles like clothing stores, apart from those located within malls. The measure will affect some 90,000 businesses, although the government said that shops would be looked at on a "case-by-case" basis should any "aberrations" come to light.

"We made some exceptions, such as hairdressers, for French people's morale. We did it because there are professions like florists that make half their turnover during spring. We did it for the chocolatiers because it's Easter," Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire told RTL radio on Sunday.

The shop closures, perhaps the most visible of the new measures, predictably raised business leaders' hackles. "The principle of partially locking down shops doesn't work," Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux who heads the Medef business union, told Europe 1 radio, adding: "We know that people aren't primarily infected in shops."

Some restrictions slackened

Parisians said the new restrictions didn't make much difference to their lives. "As you can see, everyone is eating, taking off their masks," student Rachel Chea, 20, told Reuters on Saturday along the busy banks of the Seine. "It doesn't change anything for me."

Some existing restrictions were loosened, adding to the sense of confusion over the new regime. The nationwide curfew was extended from 6pm to 7pm to account for the clocks changing to daylight saving time next Sunday.

"In the end, it will be better than before because we gain an hour in the evening with the curfew at 7pm," Louise, a yoga teacher, told Agence France-Presse.

Moreover, despite growing concerns expressed over Covid-19 transmission in schools, the prime minister announced that physical education classes could resume indoors, lifting a suspension on a practice aimed at reducing transmission risk. No provisions were announced to shutter school cafeterias, despite Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer's recent and rare concession that mask-less lunches at school are the "weak link in a pupil's day".

>> 'A French exception': Experts call for rethink of open-schools policy amid pandemic

The limited measures bolster the impression the French government is mainly counting on its vaccination programme which has seen 6.1 million vaccinated, including 2.4 million fully inoculated with second doses and improving weather conditions to quell the crisis.

"With the arrival of spring, we are going towards a period with temperatures less favourable to the circulation of the virus," Véran told Le Parisien over the weekend. "Vaccinations are a game-changer," he told the newspaper, pledging to provide 100,000 extra doses over the next 15 days to the regions hardest-hit by the current surge of Covid-19 infections.

Too little, too late?

But if the lightness of the new measures was designed to make them more popular, the government may have misjudged the public mood.

A majority of French people surveyed say new measures should have been decided earlier and that at this point they are unlikely to be sufficient. A poll by the Odoxa firm released Friday showed 78 percent of French people surveyed felt the new restrictions should have been imposed sooner and 52 percent thought they would be "insufficient given the current health situation". Among those polled in the areas affected by the lockdown, 52 percent believe the measures are "too restrictive" while 53 percent believe they will be "ineffective" at stemming Covid-19.

A full 47 percent of those polled by Odoxa, including two-thirds of the young people surveyed, said they would defy the rules of this lockdown, compared to only 5 percent who said the same of the lockdown a year ago and 12 percent during the autumn lockdown. Marseille saw a mass rebellion against Covid-19 restrictions on Sunday as more than 6,000 people gathered, mostly unmasked, at an illegal carnival-style street party. The Mediterranean port city, 200km west of Nice, is not subject to the fresh lockdown restrictions. But the nationwide curfew, bar and restaurant closures, and pre-existing rules governing mass gatherings and face masks do apply.

>> In pictures: A look back, one year after France went into lockdown

Health professionals are also sceptical that the new restrictions will work as Covid-19 numbers continue to rise. "We may be able to slow down a little bit, but the epidemiological situation is not going to sort itself out quickly with the measures being taken," former top health ministry official William Dab told BFMTV.

"The fact that people are outside doesn't worry me," epidemiologist Renaud Piarroux, who heads the parasitology unit at Paris's Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, told the LCI news channel on Monday. "The problem is that restrictions haven't been imposed in places where they need to be," Piarroux said, citing workplaces and schools.

"We shouldn't kid ourselves. We aren't going to see a rapid drop in cases with these measures," he added.

As of Monday, 4,548 patients were being treated for Covid-19 in intensive care units in France, the highest figure since late October, during the country's second lockdown. The ICU figures are more dire in the Ile-de-France region, the greater Paris area, where ICU units are saturated with Covid-19 patients. More than 30,000 new daily infections were registered within the previous 24 hours on both Friday and Saturday in France, and the more contagious and more lethal British variant represents the majority of new infections. More than 92,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the country since the start of the pandemic.

"When you look at the numbers, they're unsustainable, and it is going to become even harder as the virus continues to circulate," Anaelle Aeschliman, a nurse at the Ambroise Paré clinic in Neuilly-sur-Seine, west of Paris, told AP. "I admit I was a bit disappointed that we aren't being locked down nationwide," she said.

"The government should never have let the situation deteriorate to this point," epidemiologist Catherine Hill told Libération. "They don't understand this epidemic, they've never had a strategy. They're fumbling around in the dark searching for the light switch. It's appalling."

Confusion over France's latest restrictions followed general bewilderment last week over the AstraZeneca vaccine. Four days after France suspended its use amid blood clot concerns across Europe, the country's health authority re-approved use of the vaccine but recommended it only for those age 55 and above.