As France begins to lift its eight-week Covid-19 lockdown, the government is stepping up efforts to protect, test and isolate. But many still fear a second wave.
When French President Emmanuel Macron announced in mid-April that the country would begin lifting its Covid-19 lockdown measures on May 11, he was effectively giving his government a deadline. In order for even a partial reopening not to provoke a disastrous second wave of the epidemic, the countrys public health capacities would need to be dramatically expanded – and fast.
“Starting on May 11 we will have a new system to make this step a success,” Macron said on April 13 before a record TV audience. He promised that every French resident would get access to a “mask for the general public” (if not a FFP2 or surgical mask), that anyone presenting Covid-19 symptoms would be able to get tested, and that 10,000 new, domestically produced ventilators would be supplied to hospitals to dramatically ramp up intensive care capacity.
Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has summed up the governments strategy succinctly: “Protect, test, isolate”.
On the eve of the partial lockdown lifting, however, many are worried that the French government has not done enough to prepare the country for a safe reopening.
700,000 tests per week?
A key premise of the governments plans for this new phase is widespread testing. French authorities have faced severe criticism for falling short on testing in the early stages of the epidemic, even as the World Health Organization urged countries to “test, test, test”.
On Thursday, at a press conference confirming the governments May 11 plans, Health Minister Olivier Véran said France is now “ready to test massively”, pointing to a map that showed testing capacity at 100 percent nationwide.
A spokesperson from the French health ministry told FRANCE 24 that the country has of late been carrying out between 200,000 and 270,000 Covid-19 tests per week, and that the country is pursuing a “mobilisation of all laboratories and testing sites to arrive at a capacity of 700,000 tests” per week, a number first evoked by government officials in late April.
Covid-19 pandemic in France: the lack of masks and tests showed severe lack of preparation
The spokesperson confirmed that the government believes it can roughly triple its current capacity to meet the 700,000 goal as early as this coming week, with veterinarians, police and drive-through stations supplementing the efforts of private and public laboratories and hospitals. Some health experts, though, are sceptical.
“On the issue of tests, everyone is lying,” Dr. Philippe Froguel of the Lille university hospital center told France 3. He called the governments goal “impossible”.
Moreover, epidemiologists worry that even 100,000 tests per day is far too few.
“Ideally, you would need vastly more, because you need to track the virus,” says Catherine Hill, former head of biostatistics and epidemiology at the Gustave Roussy cancer institute. “Ideally, you would need to test everyone.”
To arrive at its 700,000 figure, the government worked backwards from a predicted 1,000 to 3,000 new Covid-19 infections per day. For every positive test, it estimated that 25 of the persons contacts would need to be tested. This would amount to a maximum of 525,000 tests per week, which the government rounded up to 700,000.
Such an approach is insufficient to prevent the spread of the virus, Hill tells FRANCE 24.
“If we only find people with symptoms and it takes one or two days to find them, and then we look for their contacts and it takes another day or two to find them, most contaminations will already have taken place,” she says. Hill notes that those infected with Covid-19 can be contagious five days before and after they show symptoms – not to mention that some never show symptoms at all.
“Im rather worried, actually,” she says.
Hill notes that the countries that have had the most success in containing the virus (including South Korea, New Zealand and Australia) have conducted widespread testing even among those who show no symptoms.
“The right indicator, actually, is: for every 100 tests, how many are positive? Because that shows how wide a net youve cast.”
In Taiwan, where testing began early and reached wide, less than 1 percent tests turned up positive and only six people have died, out of a population of nearly 24 million. In France, where testing has essentially been limited to those showing significant symptoms, a far larger share has been positive and more than 26,000 have died.
The figures from Santé Publique France do show the percentage of positive tests declining steadily since late March, as the overall number of tests has ramped up and the number of infections declined during lockdown. The latest figures available from the agency show the total number of positive laboratory tests at roughly 5 percent. Its unclear, though, whether this trend will hold once the lockdown is lifted.
Masks required on public transport, preferable elsewhere
Meanwhile, the governments recent communications around wearing a mask “have not been very clear”, says Hill. On this subject, too, Macrons government has already faced harsh criticism. Health officials initially advised the public that wearing a mask was not necessary if you were healthy, and that masks should be reserved for those who needed them the most: health care and other essential workers.
Several investigations, including by the news site Médiapart, have since shown that the governments position was driven primarily by a shortage of masks, and that officials were scrambling to make up the shortage even as they gave the public conflicting information.
Starting on Monday, masks will be mandatory on public transport nationwide, subject to a €135 fine. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said that the government will be supplying 10 million masks to local transport operators to distribute to passengers who dont already have a mask of their own, including 4.4 million for the Paris region.
In other public places, wearing a mask is “preferable” but not required, Prime Minister Philippe has said. A few cities, like Nice, have taken matters into their own hands and will require masks locally, and the mayors of the countrys largest cities have expressed interest in following suit.
As the cost of masks has surged, the government has fixed prices to a maximum of 95 cents per surgical mask, while declining to set limits on the price of cloth and other reusable masks. In early January, surgical masks (which are intended to be disposable) were available online for just 8 cents.
Some opposition members argue that the government should concentrate on distributing masks for free rather than penalising those who dont have them.
“If there is an obligation for citizens [to wear a mask], there must be an obligation for the state to make this product available,” member of parliament Danièle Obono, of the left-wing La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, told the National Assembly on Friday. She argued that putting the financial burden on individuals to procure a mask could deepen inequalities and put those unable to procure masks at risk of abusive policing.
“You are going to create a situation, in public transport notably, where there will be tensions,” said Obono.
Heavy-handed enforcement of lockdown measures fuelled dramatic clashes between police and residents in Pariss working-class banlieues (suburbs) in late April.
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