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OPINION & ANALYSIS

ANALYSIS: How dangerous are France’s sky-high Covid rates?

France is experiencing record high levels of Covid infections, but deaths and hospitalisations are lower than during previous waves. We asked the experts just how much of a problem the high case numbers are.

A doctor prepares a vaccine dose in a hospital in France.
A doctor prepares a vaccine dose in a hospital in France. The true effects of the fifth wave are yet to be felt. (Photo by Pascal POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP)

Last month the French Health Minister Olivier Véran warned of a “mega-wave”, in which infections from the Delta and Omicron variants of Covid would combine to produce record case numbers. 

His prediction was correct – France is currently recording more new Covid infections than at any other point during the pandemic – with a seven-day average of 265,837 new daily cases last week. 

France is experiencing unprecedented levels of Covid cases. Source: covidtracker.fr

Part of this can be explained by the fact that people are testing more now than ever before. 

But for Pascal Crépey, a researcher at France’s École des hautes études en santé publique, it has more to do with the transmissibility of the Omicron variant, which is now the dominant strain in France. 

“It has the ability to infect a much larger number of people than previous variants. It is very, very contagious,” he said. 

We were about to reach the peak of the Delta wave when the Omicron variant arrived. This is not a single wave, it is a double wave.”

What does this mean for hospitals?

The French government has previously enacted lockdowns when the intensive care unit became overwhelmed with Covid cases – so the situation in the country’s hospitals affects everyone. 

Currently, the fifth wave hasn’t led to the same level of serious illness as previous ones.

The latest figures show 3,847 people in intensive care with Covid-19 – a far cry from the 7,019 people in the same situation in April 2020. 

France is experiencing an increase in the number of people in intensive care units suffering with Covid. But previous waves have seen higher intensive care occupancy. Source: covidtracker.fr

France’s high vaccination rate is undoubtedly having an impact, but it seems that the Omicron variant is less likely to make people seriously ill than other strains of Covid.

But that doesn’t mean that we are in the clear yet – the graph above demonstrates that the number of Covid patients in intensive care is continuing to grow. 

“Even if the Omicron variant is 50 percent less severe, but we end up with three times the number of infected people, we could have a much larger number of severe cases,” said Crépey. 

Some hospitals have already seen their intensive care services become saturated. 

Victorien Maginelle, a director at the Centre Hospitalier Compiègne-Noyon, said that this is the case in his hospital – where 70 percent of beds in these units are occupied by Covid patients. 

“There is no more space for people who have heart attacks or road accidents,” he said. 

“We have had to push back a lot of surgery. There are hundreds of patients waiting for an operation. There needs to be a space in réanimation following an operation, just in case.”

The impact of nearly two years of the pandemic is also beginning to take a toll on hospital staff themselves. 

“We have people working 97 hours a week,” said Jean-Francois Cibien, an emergency ward doctor in the Centre Hospitalier AGEN-NERAC in south west France.

“We are exhausted. We cannot keep working like this.” 

Outside of intensive care units, the number of Covid patients needing hospitalisation is growing at an even faster rate. 

Like many working in the French medical sector, Cibien, who is also president of the APH medics union, believes the government has not done enough to support them. 

“I would believe that our politicians would look at what happened in the three weeks over Christmas and that they would have the decency to extend the school holidays,” he said. “We just wanted one more week of rest. Resilience is dead. The French state has killed the resilience of its health staff. They are turning us into robots.”

A lengthy period of high occupancy rates in hospital will heap yet more pressure on medical staff.

So when will this fifth wave be over? 

The head of the French Vaccine Strategy Council, Alain Fischer, predicted last week that the fifth wave will peak by the end of January. 

“It sounds like a realistic scenario,” said Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva. But he warned that infections could plateau, remaining at a high level, rather than peak and then begin to fall rapidly. 

We don’t have real examples yet apart from in southern Africa, where the situation has been improving dramatically in recent weeks. But it is not really easy to transpose that situation to Europe. In the South, it is the summer, so more people are outdoors,” he said. 

The evolution of case numbers in the UK, which experienced a dramatic Omicron surge weeks before France, is a far better indicator for how things will go here. 

“If the virus peaks in the UK, that would be a good sign,” said Flahault. 

“Even if France avoids the most catastrophic situation, we can imagine that most sectors of the economy could be affected by absenteeism, even if people are sick for just a short period of time. This could include essential sectors, for about two to four weeks around the peak, but not for a long time.”

Could this really be the last wave? 

The French Health Minister, Olivier Véran, gave an interview with some positive-sounding news to kick off the new year. 

“This fifth wave will maybe be the last. The Omicron variant is so contagious that it will hit all the populations in the world. It will lead to a reinforced immunity. We will all be better armed once it has passed,” he told the Journal de Dimanche

Unfortunately, many epidemiologists are not so sure. 

“I don’t know why he said that. I think it was a little bit of wishful thinking rather than a scientifically-grounded comment,” said Crépey. 

“Epidemiologists have known for quite some time that this coronavirus will not go away. There is no reason for it to go away. What is sure is that the engine for the creation of new variants is replication of the virus.

“When it replicates, it mutates. The more cases that you have the more opportunity that the variant has to mutate and create a new one with better ability to spread. The more we gain collective immunity, the greater the evolutionary pressure will be on the virus to escape this immunity” 

Flahault said that while some of his colleagues agree with Véran, the more pessimistic outcome evoked by Crépey is also possible. 

“Maybe a new variant will escape cell-mediated immunity. Maybe other variants will be more transmissible. We will see at the end of the day whether this Omicron strain has affected 40 percent of the population in Western Europe and whether this causes significant damage. If that is the case, we will need to find solutions.” 

“I am strongly advocating that we think about air quality of indoor settings: it will fight against all variants to breath better quality air. The locations where we are infected today are indoor, poorly ventilated, crowded spaces. 99 percent of infections are known to occur in these locations. We acquire the virus in poorly ventilated spaces”. 

How does vaccination help?  

The number of people dying from Covid-19 is far lower than during previous waves.

While some of this can be attributed to differences in the Omicron variant, data from hospitals show that around 80 percent of Covid patients in intensive care are unvaccinated. Of the remaining 20 percent, the vast majority have suppressed immune systems through previous illnesses.

The number of Covid deaths recorded in hospitals is lower now than during previous waves. Source: covidtracker.fr

France has a high vaccination rate with more than 90 percent of the eligible population – and 78 percent of the total population – vaccinated with at least one dose. However, the fact that case numbers are exploding has knocked public confidence in the vaccination programme according to Crépey. 

“This wave has made things very different in terms of public perception. When vaccines arrived at the beginning of the year, a lot of people thought it would be the end of the story for the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a mistake from the politicians and the scientists to oversell the vaccine,” he said.  

Despite this, Maginelle warned of the dangers of forgoing vaccination, noting that those in intensive care with Covid where overwhelmingly unvaccinated. 

“Last week, we had a 30-year-old man come into the hospital with Covid symptoms. He told us that he was fully vaccinated but is now in intensive care.

“We later learned that he was using a fake vaccination certificate,” he said. 

Member comments

  1. Now that 12-15 year olds are eligible for a booster in United States, when will France offer the same to children here?

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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: UK-France travel crisis will only be solved when the British get real about Brexit

Long queues at Channel ports have caused misery for thousands of holidaymakers - and an exchange of blame between the British and French governments. John Lichfield looks at who is really to blame and how the crisis can be solved.

OPINION: UK-France travel crisis will only be solved when the British get real about Brexit

Let’s get one thing straight about the dire straits in Dover.

The long queues to pass through French passport control are not the fault of France – much less a deliberate plot by President Emmanuel Macron (as some UK newspapers suggest).

Strictly-speaking, they are not the “fault” of Brexit either. They are the fault of successive British governments who have failed to prepare for Brexit and failed to educate the British public on what Brexit means.

Leaving the EU, according to the Brexiteer gospel, has no downsides. When that lie is found out, the response is always more lies.

Yes, delays in the Channel Tunnel did prevent a full staffing of French passport-control booths for a couple of hours on Friday. Yes, that did help to build the queues of Calais-bound cars to epic proportions.

But that was only briefly responsible for the tail-backs at Dover port and not at all responsible for the similar mayhem at the Channel Tunnel terminal near Folkestone.

A former senior British official with experience of Franco-British border issues tells me: “This (problem) was nothing to do with under-staffing by the Police aux Frontières. That only seems to have lasted less than two hours.”

READ ALSO Are the French really to blame for Dover traffic chaos?

The fundamental cause was the extra time it takes to clear and stamp a British passport now the UK is no longer in the European Union – 30 seconds instead of three seconds. The infrastructure at Dover and Folkestone has not been changed because the UK government refused to do so.

The jams were made worse by the fact that the Kent motorways were already choked by stacked France-bound trucks. These are permanent jams caused by the government’s failure to accept the consequences of its decision to impose the most radical form of Brexit by abandoning the EU single market.

 The French police had 200 officers on duty in Calais and Folkestone last weekend – almost double the normal number.

They could not send more. There are not enough French passport booths and traffic lanes at either Dover or Folkestone  to cope at peak periods with the extended post-Brexit passport checks.

Will UK-France travel continue to be a nightmare all summer?

 The French government and the port authorities have been pointing this out for at least two years. 

In 2020, the UK government refused to spend £33 million (€39 million) on port improvements in the cramped Dover port, which would, inter alia, have doubled the space for French passport control.

Both the candidates to be the next British prime minister, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, have lied. They say that the blockages are entirely the fault of France. The British tabloid press prefers to personalise its mendacity. They suggest that Emmanuel Macron personally took time away from the Ukraine, energy and cost of living crises to plot to ruin British holidays.

Why did French police insist on checking every passport? Why not wave British cars through, as they once did?

There is some evidence that the French did waive the rules at the weekend to help clear the backlog. But that cannot be a permanent solution. Post-Brexit, France has a duty under EU law to stamp British passports to ensure that those without residence permits are not overstaying their 90-day allowance.

The huge blockages of last weekend are, therefore, likely to be repeated next weekend and every weekend this summer.

There is another aspect of the Dover and Folkestone crisis which the British media largely ignores. The French passport controls are on the English side of the Channel because that suits the British government.

They are part of a swap deal agreed in the Le Touquet treaty in 2003. By having British passport controls on the French side of the Channel, asylum seekers could be prevented from reaching British soil and claiming asylum.

READ ALSO What is the Le Touquet agreement and why do some French politicians want to scrap it?

There was no particular advantage to the French in having their passport checks in Kent but that was the reciprocal deal that President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed at the time.

As a result, French police take the tunnel shuttle daily over to the English side. Signal problems delayed the arrival of some of the officers on Friday – providing the UK government with a convenient lie.

Some French politicians are already campaigning for the Le Touquet treaty to be scrapped. President Macron did so before he was president.

The latest outbreak of blame-the-French nonsense in Britain will no doubt strengthen the hand of the anti-Le Touquet camp. It would be much easier (although expensive) for France to build extra passport-checking capacity on the Calais side of the straits.

That would also mean that asylum seekers could reach England before their passports are checked. That would doubtless displease the Daily Mail.

In truth, France is unlikely to abandon the Le Touquet treaty. Even more migrants and asylum-seekers would be attracted to the Pas-de-Calais. They would still be blocked from crossing by steep UK penalties on Eurotunnel and the ferry companies for carrying unauthorised passengers.

There is another reason why the French border will probably remain in Kent. The EU is introducing a system of electronic visas for non-EU travellers.

READ ALSO Passport scans and €7 fees: What is changing for EU travel?

In theory that could ease the problems in Dover. It might make things even worse if many travellers turn up without buying their €7, three-year visa in advance.

At least if they are stopped in Dover, they can be go straight home. If they were stopped in Calais, they would have to be “sent back across the Channel”, which might cause even greater problems.

There is no short-term solution to the Dover crisis. A mid-term solution is possible – a doubling of the space for French passport checks, now restricted to 12 lanes.

But that would require the British government to tell the truth about Brexit and to admit that leaving the EU can be painful and costs money.

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