France should impose an immediate third lockdown, a Paris emergency doctor said today as the British variant of Covid-19 spreads rapidly across the country with vaccines coming too slowly to prevent a third wave.
Philippe Juvin warned of a ‘heavy price’ if Emmanuel Macron fails to act quickly – telling French television that ‘I do not understand what we are waiting for’ after infection rates rose to their highest level since November.
French PM Jean Castex admitted on Thursday that ‘the country’s health situation has deteriorated’ after experts warned that the UK strain would soon become dominant across France, with Juvin describing the situation at Paris hospitals as ‘very tense’.
Macron’s government is desperately trying to avoid a third lockdown, but Paris is one of 20 high-risk regions already facing tougher measures, and city authorities have called for a three-week circuit breaker to stem the third wave.
But the proposal is mired in political controversy with opponents accusing the city’s mayor Anne Hidalgo of electioneering ahead of a possible presidential run next year – after her deputy Emmanuel Gregoire said a short lockdown would be better than living in a ‘semi-prison’ for months.
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the idea would be studied but suggested there was little point having a lockdown for Paris alone given the numbers travelling in and out every day.
‘As we get closer to an epidemic peak, each day spent without taking a decision comes with a heavy price,’ said Juvin, the head of the emergencies unit at the Georges Pompidou European Hospital.
Macron, who is also under pressure over the EU vaccine chaos, last night said he would take the AstraZeneca shot despite previously rubbishing the jab – but he would be waiting until next year at the current rate of progress.
The 43-year-old president said that ‘in view of the latest scientific studies, the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine has been proven’, after causing uproar last month by wrongly describing it as ‘quasi-ineffective’ in older people.
‘If that’s the vaccine that’s offered to me, I will take it, of course,’ Macron said, while berating AstraZeneca over the supply chaos that has hindered the EU vaccine drive.
It comes after Angela Merkel, 66, said she would not take the AstraZeneca shot because German regulators have not approved it for over-65s despite real-world proof that it is highly effective.
French regulators have also limited the jab to under-65s, but Macron’s relative youth means he would be eligible for the shot.
But with France currently handing out only 550,000 first doses per week, it would take until 2022 to get through the 33million French people who are older than Macron if the roll-out does not speed up.
This graph shows the widening gap between the UK and major EU countries in the vaccination race – with France moving so slowly that Emmanuel Macron would not be up for his jab until 2022 at the current pace
Emmanuel Macron, pictured at the Elysee Palace on Thursday, says he would be willing to get the AstraZeneca vaccine having previously rubbished the jab
France’s infection rate is at its highest since a November lockdown, with vaccines coming too slowly to rein in the spread of the British variant
Deaths are at around 300 per day, their lowest since late December, but would likely rise again if there is a surge in cases and hospitalisations
France’s much-criticised vaccine roll-out has reached only 2.7million people so far compared to 18.7million in Britain, which has a similarly-sized population.
France touts the fact that more of its population has received a second dose than in the UK – but real-world studies show that a single dose gives substantial protection.
Macron himself recovered from Covid-19 in December, meaning he may only get a single shot of the vaccine under a recommendation by French health officials.
The president, who isolated for seven days at a retreat called La Lanterne near the Palace of Versailles, is not known to have any underlying medical problems.
His wife Brigitte, 67, is nearer the front of the vaccine queue but even she may not get a jab until the middle of spring.
France does not expect to open up jabs to healthy over-65s until late March or early to mid-April, by which time Britain expects to have vaccinated all over-50s.
Under pressure to speed things up, Macron lashed out at AstraZeneca on Thursday and accused the firm of ‘not being serious’ about its commitments to deliver jabs.
‘We told them, you’re not being serious about the commitments you made, because you haven’t met them,’ he said.
‘We’re putting pressure on them so they make up the ground lost and so that a precise timetable is met.’
France’s vaccine roll-out is among the slowest of major EU countries, falling not only well behind Britain’s but also below than the EU average and other underperforming countries such as Germany and Italy
Macron’s statement that he would take the AstraZeneca jab comes after Angela Merkel, pictured, said she was not eligible because she is too old
This graph shows infection rates in six European countries. The UK (in red) was the problem child of Europe at the start of 2021 but has since seen cases plummet and is leading the continent in terms of vaccinations
But while Macron points the finger at supply problems, France’s own bureaucracy and vaccine scepticism have also been blamed – with Macron widely criticised for casting doubt on the Oxford product.
Only 139,000 people have been given the shot since it was approved a month ago, while Germany has 1.2million doses going spare amid reluctance to take the jab.
Both countries are now seeing cases rise again, with French ministers threatening weekend lockdowns for Paris and 19 other departments.
France has piled up more than 150,000 new cases in the last week, the most since the week beginning November 17 when the country was in its second lockdown.
Macron’s government has sought to avoid a third lockdown, instead imposing a nationwide curfew and stricter measures in regional hotspots.
PM Jean Castex said ‘we should only resort to a lockdown when we have no other choice’ but scientists say vaccines are coming too slowly to rein in the third wave.
Castex said the hotspot regions would now be subject to heightened scrutiny by public health officials, with new measures potentially imposed from March 6.
Nice and Dunkirk have already been hit with stay-at-home orders at weekends and stepped-up checks at airports as well as tougher rules on mask-wearing.
Paris deputy mayor Emmanuel Gregoire said a three-week shutdown would give ‘hope of everything re-opening again’ including cafes and cultural venues.
‘You can’t force yourself to live in a semi-prison for months. Now you have to make courageous decisions,’ he told France Info radio late on Thursday.
Customers queue outside a fashion store in Paris on Thursday, with the city’s deputy mayor calling for a three-week circuit-breaker to halt new infections
Macron and Merkel were among the EU leaders who discussed Europe’s plans to re-open borders in a virtual summit on Thursday
Paris authorities do not have the power to impose lockdowns, but Gregoire said the city hall would propose the measure to the French government.
But right-wing critics accused socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo of playing politics ahead of a possible presidential bid in 2022.
‘Anne Hidalgo cannot use Parisians, play with their life and future, for the sake of PR stunts aimed above all at opposing Emmanuel Macron,’ said one right-wing group.
The head of the wider Ile-de-France region, Valerie Pecresse, also ridiculed the suggestion, telling Le Parisien that ‘millions of people’ travel in and out of the region every day.
But experts at the prestigious Institut Pasteur say new measures may be needed because the feared British variant is set to become the dominant strain in France.
The institute says that only 10 per cent of the French population is expected to have been vaccinated by mid-March, making ‘little impact on the dynamics of infection’.
The UK strain is believed to be more contagious, meaning that the transmission rate is expected to be 55 per cent higher by April than it would have been before.
The French scientists say that daily hospital admissions could return to levels of 4,500 per day not seen since the first wave.
‘We expect that the vaccination may help delay the rise in hospital admissions by about two weeks,’ the Pasteur scientists said.
‘However, its impact may not be sufficient to balance the effect of the increased transmissibility of [the British variant].
‘Indeed, the number of hospital admissions might reach in the second half of April 2021 levels observed at the peak of the French second wave and more than 4,500 daily hospital admissions at the peak which would likely overwhelm the healthcare system.’
The experts said that if France could speed up to a rate of more than 400,000 jabs per day and reach 90 per cent vaccine coverage in over-75s, the number of hospital cases at the peak could be reduced by up to 33 per cent.
A woman gets the vaccine at a cultural centre turned into a vaccination headquarters in Paris – with scientists warning that new measures may be needed if too few jabs are given out
But they warned that ‘additional control measures’ may be needed in the meantime, with ministers already signalling that extra curbs are looming.
Strengthening restrictions with ‘strong intensity’ for six weeks could ‘reduce the growth in hospital admissions further than in other scenarios,’ the scientists said.
Macron was also involved in EU talks on Thursday over opening up travel, with tourism-reliant countries pressing for ‘vaccine passports’ to restart holidays.
Greece is already seeking bilateral arrangements with Britain and Israel while Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz has also lobbied for so-called ‘green passports’.
But Macron said vaccine passports would be unfair for young people who are at the back of the queue for vaccination and could in effect be banned from travelling.
‘I’ll never allow access to one country or another to depend on some certificate or other,’ he said.
And Merkel said it would take at least three months to design a scheme – after Germany was scolded by the EU for imposing unilateral border closures.
EU leaders are sticking with their goal of having 70 per cent of adults in the EU fully vaccinated by mid-September.
But leaders warned in a joint statement that ‘the epidemiological situation remains serious, and the new variants pose additional challenges’.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said the British variant was present in all 27 member states, the South African variant in 14 and the Brazilian strain in seven.
‘We must therefore uphold tight restrictions while stepping up efforts to accelerate the provision of vaccines,’ the leaders said.