Party or pyjamas? New Year’s celebrations in France to go ahead despite record Covid cases

·6-min read

Will the French be spending New Year’s Eve in slippers this year? That was the headline of French daily Le Parisien, while the weekly magazine Le Point summed up the dilemma in three words: “Soirée ou canapé?” – an evening out or an evening on the sofa? It’s the question being asked in households across France ahead of New Year’s Eve, as cases of Covid-19 in the country soar to unprecedented levels.

Some are deciding to go ahead with celebrations despite the rising cases. Ramez Sabah, who lives in the western town of Angers with his family, always brings in the New Year with a small group of friends, and this year will be no exception.

“We can’t continue living like this and avoiding other people,” he told FRANCE 24. The couple are both fully vaccinated and see the Omicron variant as less harmful, so they are less concerned about catching the virus.

France’s public health authorities have said that Omicron causes fewer hospitalisations than the more dangerous variant Delta, but the government has stressed that with six or seven times the number of cases, even if the strain is less virulent, it will still put the health sector under strain.

For Vincent Gomez and his partner Sophie Calzia, who live in Marseille, there was no question of cancelling their New Year’s Eve plans. They’ll be heading to the Alps with a group of friends for a few days of skiing and a party on the 31st. Gomez told FRANCE 24 he was not particularly anxious about Covid-19: Those attending the party who have been in contact with a Covid case will get tested before they arrive, and he and Calzia are not only fully vaccinated but also caught Covid just a few months ago.

“It didn’t even occur to us not to go. We were just so keen to pack our bags and get away for a bit,” he said, adding that the group of friends planned to open windows and try to stick to social distancing on the night itself.

“Although once the party gets going, I think those precautions will probably be forgotten,” he said wryly.

A ‘tidal wave’ of cases

On December 29, there were a record 208,000 Covid-19 cases detected in France over 24 hours, beating a previous record set only the day before of 180,000 positive Covid-19 tests a day. Olivier Véran, the country’s health minister, characterised it as a “tidal wave”.

“It means that 24/7, day and night, every second, two French people are testing positive for coronavirus,” he explained. “We’ve never experienced anything like it.”

Samuel (an assumed name to protect his identity) is a junior doctor in the emergency department at Beaujon Hospital in Clichy, just outside of central Paris. He says that when he started working in the department in November, they were only seeing about one Covid-19 case a day. Now, that figure has multiplied – and he emphasises that it is predominantly unvaccinated people who are taking up hospital beds with more severe forms of Covid.

“We're running out of beds,” he explained. “We lack staff, we lack equipment. And all the while, the government is putting billions of euros into testing and vaccination. Pharmacies and doctors have endless tests, but there’s no money for public hospitals.”

The public health sector has called on the government for more money to plug staffing gaps, due in part to people leaving the profession because of burnout or having to isolate when they, themselves, are infected with Covid-19.

Jérémy Chanchou is a nursing assistant in the emergency department of Arles public hospital in southern France.

“The staff is exhausted after two years of this ongoing crisis. Especially since we can’t even see the end of it. A lot of people are on sick leave. Eight of my colleagues are quitting their jobs, trying to transfer elsewhere or simply to retrain in something different because they’re tired of working in these conditions,” he told FRANCE 24.

On December 8, eight regions across France activated the “plan blanc” (white plan), which enables health centres to prepare for a surge in cases by earmarking beds for Covid-19 patients and postponing or cancelling non-urgent procedures.

“All of the nurses’ end-of-year holidays were cancelled so that we had enough staff to be able to do our jobs correctly,” Chanchou said. “In 17 years of working in hospitals, I’ve never seen so many of my colleagues crying after being asked to make even more sacrifices.”

Chanchou believes that the cancelled operations risk turning into “a silent health emergency. The effects of that in a few months will be awful.”

Too much, or not enough?

The government has been drip-feeding new measures over the past month, clearly reluctant to have to once again impose tight restrictions on end-of-year festivities. On December 17, Prime Minister Jean Castex said that he was calling on citizens to act responsibly during New Year celebrations, by limiting the number of guests at parties, testing before attending social events and respecting social distancing measures, but he stopped short of imposing a curfew (as was the case last year) or capacity limits for events.

On December 27, the government announced that working from home at least three days a week would become mandatory from January 3 wherever possible, and eating and drinking in cinemas, public transport and gyms would be prohibited, as would standing up to eat or drink in bars or cafés. The government has come under criticism for these recent measures, particularly the decision to make it obligatory to wear a mask outdoors in Paris and other areas in the Paris region.

Lindsey Tramuta, a Paris-based journalist and author of The New Parisienne, said she thought the government was prioritising the economy and considering French President Emmanuel Macron's expected candidacy for re-election in next year’s general elections.

“If they wanted to do something more constructive, the government would have delayed the return to school after the holiday and been more strict with restaurants, bars, and other enclosed spaces. Wear masks outside in Paris but then take them off inside a restaurant? It doesn't make a lot of sense. The handling of this crisis is entirely political now. The days of quoi qu'il en coûte are over,” she said, making a reference to a speech made by Macron in March 2020, when he said that the country would do “whatever it takes” to fight the pandemic.

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