It’s groundhog day. It’s a-whole-nation-grounded day for a second time. It’s déjà vu all over again.
Despite multiple statements by the government that a new Covid lockdown was inconceivable, France has been plunged into lockdown once again and into a world of scribbled forms to leave home.
There will be significant differences from the first lockdown which began on March 17th. Schools will remain open. So will some factories and public offices. So will markets and parks.
But on Friday France became the first large country in the world to plunge into something approaching a full, second Covid-19 lockdown. Others may soon follow.
I fear that this lockdown will not be so passively accepted as the first. Already France has dissolved into multiple arguments and recriminations.
It is too soon; it is too late. It is too harsh; it is too soft. It is not really a lockdown if schools and factories stay open. It’s the government’s fault for taking its eye off the ball in August-September.
It’s the fault of young people for enjoying themselves. It’s all our faults for talking a holiday from the virus in July-August and never properly coming back again.
There is some truth in all of these arguments. But this is not just a Franco-French epidemic. Please look around. Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK – even disciplined Germany, even cautious Switzerland – are facing an uncontrolled second wave of a still poorly-understood and sly disease.
President Emmanuel Macron deserves some credit for taking the courageous decision last night to stand on his head in public and confess that his post-June strategy had failed.
Looking back, the government took a wrong turning six weeks ago when it failed to take the advice of its scientific committee that “difficult new decisions” were urgently needed. The Prime Minister Jean Castex was expected to announce a crackdown and – after a dramatic drumroll – he said nothing much.
The city by city or region by region curfews introduced two weeks ago have proved to be too little and too late.
The government – Macron included – was doubtless distracted by its €100 billion plan to relaunch the economy after the first wave. It was also misled – as many people were; as I was – by the comparatively benign shape of the early stages of the Second Wave.
Cases began to swell alarmingly from early September but over half of them had no symptoms. The number of deaths and acute cases remained small.
They have started to accelerate in the last three weeks. Deaths are averaging 230 a day. There are over 3,000 Covid patients in intensive care.. The government’s scientific committee fear that figure could triple in the next fortnight – overwhelming the 6,000 or so beds now available.
Is the government therefore wrong to keep some schools, factories and public offices open? Children, according to some studies, are not spreaders of the virus. But what of the parents who must still congregate at school gates to collect them?
The consequence of the school closures from March to June was calamitous. A large cohort of children, especially in poorer areas, vanished from the radar. They were unwilling – or maybe in many cases unable – to follow the virtual teaching on-line.
There is an argument – mostly on the Left – that Macron is obsessed by the economy, rather than the nation’s health: that he is terrified by the prospect that France will be in the gutter economically when he fights the presidential election in 16 months’ time.
Schools must therefore be kept open so that parents can work. Factory workers must risk the virus so that France’s GDP – already likely to take a 5 to 10% hit this year – does not fall off a cliff. All pleasures must be curtailed but work must go on. The nation is confined to a life of Boulot-Metro-Dodo (work-commute-sleep).
This is a foolish accusation. Of course, Macron is concerned for the nation’s prosperity. That’s what we pay him for. As he rightly said in his TV address on Wednesday night “there can be no successful economy in a health crisis with a virus spreading fast but there can be no state health system which survives without a strong economy to finance it.”
He did not want, or expect, to have to close the country down again. He had counted on his €100 billion recovery programme to produce a robust rebound in the final months of this year and early next. He hoped that some of another €100 billion placed in savings by wealthier citizens since the health crisis began would pour back into the economy.
None of that will now happen. But Macron is surely right to try to prevent a complete shipwreck by keeping as much of the economy functioning as possible.
Politicians are politicians. No doubt the 2022 election is in Macron’s mind. But it will not help him to be re-elected if he has got the balance between lockdown and continued economic activity wrong.
We will know in four weeks’ time.