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COVID-19

Coronavirus pandemic opens up divide between cities and countryside across Europe

From Norway to France and Spain, the coronavirus lockdown in much of Europe has pitted rural people against city-dwellers flocking to the countryside to wait out the pandemic sweeping the continent.

Coronavirus pandemic opens up divide between cities and countryside across Europe
AFP

“Parigo home, virus!” proclaimed graffiti pictured in the local newspaper in Cap-Ferret, a small town in southeastern France, employing the derogatory epithet for people from the French capital — many of whom have a second home there.

The image summed up the sentiment of many in an isolated region little affected by the epidemic so far, but now fearing an explosion of imported cases.

Monday night saw Parisians leaving the capital in droves on the eve of a nationwide home confinement announced by President Emmanuel Macron in a bid to halt the virus's spread.

“We knew when the temporary residents arrived because there were so many people in the supermarkets,” said Patrick Rayton, mayor of La Couarde-sur-Mer, a village on the Ile de Re, a bucolic island off France's western coast.

The bridge connecting the village to the mainland was crammed with cars on Tuesday morning in scenes reminiscent of the summer holidays.

The police had to step in at the local supermarket to remind clients of the new health safety rules, which require people to keep a distance of one metre (3.3 feet) from each other, Rayton said.

According to the commune president Lionel Quillet, “the new arrivals were making a run on the groceries, there were tensions with the locals.” 

“Later, the weather was nice so they went out for bike rides, or were playing watersports” despite the ban on group activities, he said.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus around Europe: An inside view into the crisis in different countries

'Pure madness'

Further up the coast in Brittany, authorities in the region of Morbihan banned all accommodation rentals on four islands, including the popular Belle-Ile.

“The habitation of furnished lodgings that are not primary residences is restricted to the owner, and in their presence, their children and parents,” according to a government decree.

One major fear is overrunning emergency services and hospitals in rural communities that often are already under-serviced.

“We have a very limited safety net in terms of supplies,” said Denis Pallua, the mayor of Ouessant, one of the islands. “There is only one doctor, we would be very quickly overwhelmed.”

Similar concerns exist in Italy, the European country hit hardest by the coronavirus epidemic to date.

Thousands of people fled Italy's north in the wake of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's decree on March 8th to lock down all Lombardy and other affected regions. 

Only people with legitimate reasons are allowed to travel, and then on presentation of sworn statements to authorities at train stations.

Faced with the prospect of weeks of quarantine, many people originally from the south who work in the north filled trains to return home, causing alarm bells to ring.

Last week, the president of the southern Puglia region, Michele Emiliano, said people from the north continued to arrive, “and with them come thousands more chances of contagion.”

Virology professor Roberto Brioni of Milan's Vita-Salute San Raffaello university noted the risks from the exodus to the countryside, home to large numbers of older people most vulnerable to coronavirus infection and the severe health problems it can cause.

Such a large-scale displacement was “pure madness,” he said, since the travellers “bring infection with them.”

Norway bans cabin stays

Norway said on Thursday it would ban people from going to their country houses in order to prevent healthcare services in small rural communities from being submerged by the new coronavirus pandemic.

Those who violate the ban could face a fine of up to 15,000 kroner ($1,320) or, failing payment, 10 days in prison, prosecution authorities said.   

Many Norwegians have in recent weeks fled to their country houses, often chalets in the mountains, in the hopes of escaping the virus thanks to their relative isolation. Some have defied authorities' recent appeals to return to their primary residences.
 
Randi Hausken/flickr
   
The government had for several days been threatening to introduce a ban if people did not heed authorities' calls, and finally made good on its threat on Thursday.
   
“It's a decision that, in the end, I had hoped we wouldn't have to take but we will ban stays outside (people's) residential municipality,” Health Minister Bent Hoie said.

Spanish region up in arms

In Spain, the southeastern region of Murcia, renowned for its beaches and agricultural hinterland, is confronting a mass influx from Madrid.

Furious, regional president Fernando Lopez Miras lamented that an infection-prevention lockdown has instead been “converted into a sort of holiday on the coast.”

Last Friday, he decreed the immediate lockdown of all tourist zones in the region.

Meanwhile, the rural Perigord region in western France saw its first coronavirus case diagnosed on Wednesday: a Parisian, according to health professionals, who is hoped will remain an isolated case.

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COVID-19

Return of the health pass? How France plans to tackle new wave of Covid cases

With a sharp rise in reported cases in recent weeks, France appears to be in the middle of a new wave of Covid infections - so what measures are the government taking to control it?

Return of the health pass? How France plans to tackle new wave of Covid cases

Recorded case numbers in France are now over 50,000 a week, and have been since the beginning of June – this is a long way short of the 350,000 weekly cases recorded in January but still the highest since May and representing a steady an increase of 57 percent on the previous week.

Hospital admissions are also on the rise – standing at 707 admissions on Friday, June 24th compared to 400 daily admissions just two weeks earlier.

So what is the French government doing about it?

Since March, almost all Covid-related restrictions have been lifted in France – the health pass is no longer required for everyday activities such as visiting a bar or going to the gym and face masks are now merely advised in all indoor locations. Only hospitals and other health establishments such as nursing homes still have mandatory rules on face masks and health passes.

For international travel, fully vaccinated arrivals from most countries – including the UK, US and the whole of the EU – need only to show proof of vaccination, while unvaccinated travellers need to show proof of a recent negative Covid test – full details HERE.

Health pass

A proposed bill from the health ministry that was leaked to French media talks about re-imposing some form of pass sanitaire (health pass) to get numbers under control.

Some caveats to add here is that the document is only a proposal at this stage and the government has explicitly rules out – for the moment – reintroducing the vaccine pass. The health pass can be used to show either proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid test, so it is less restrictive for the unvaccinated.

The document suggests re-introducing a health pass for travel – both to and from France – not for everyday activities like going to a café.

Testing and contact tracing

The bill also proposes extending the software involved in contact tracing and the Covid testing programme until March 2023, although this is described as a ‘precaution’.

Testing remains available on a walk-in basis at most French pharmacies and by appointment at health centres and medical labs. Tests are free for fully-vaccinated residents of France who have a carte vitale. Those are only visiting France, who are not registered in the French health system or who are not vaccinated have to pay – prices are capped at €22 for an antigen test and €54 for a PCR test.

READ ALSO How tourists in France can get a Covid test

Masks

The government’s Covid vaccine adviser Alain Fischer told France Info that he was in favour of making face masks compulsory on public transport again and said it is ‘being discussed” at government level.

At present masks are not required, but are recommended, especially on busy services where it is impossible to practice social distancing.

Epidemiologist Pascal Crépey said: “In crowded trains, the risk of being in the presence of infected people is high. It would be a good idea for the population to wear the mask, to protect especially the most fragile and avoid massive infection rates.”

Local measures

French local authorities also have the power to impose certain types of restrictions if their area has a particularly high rate of infections.

At present, none have done so, but Nice mayor Christian Estrosi has spoken in favour of possibly bringing back the vaccine pass over the summer.

Second booster shots

A second booster shot of the Covid vaccine is now available to all over 60s and anyone who has a long-term medical condition or who is otherwise at risk from Covid.

It is recommended that the government increase public messaging advising those in high risk groups to get the second booster shot. The medical regular HAS has advised combining second booster shots with the seasonal flu vaccine campaign in September and October.

France is not, at present, considering widening the campaign to the entire popular, but the EU’s vaccine commissioner Thierry Breton says that if necessary, there would be enough doses to cover the whole population.

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