France shows Europe can keep Covid-19 in check after reopening

On June 21, like every year since 1982, France held its Fête de la musique — a feat few had imagined possible only weeks ago.

The novel coronavirus that paralysed France for months and has yet to be eradicated made its presence felt: the all-night street music festival featured fewer concerts and DJ sets than usual, and organisers had to come up with creative safety measures — such as musicians playing on mobile stages mounted on the back of trucks.

But the event going ahead at all is one indication of the country’s relative success at keeping the coronavirus at bay after easing its nationwide lockdown last month.

Since May 11, when President Emmanuel Macron ordered the gradual reopening of schools and businesses, the rate of Covid-19 infections has slowed — including in Paris and the north-eastern region where the epidemic struck most fiercely. This has prompted Jean-Francois Delfraissy, France’s top scientific adviser, to declare that the virus was “under control”.

With social distancing measures still in place and the wearing of face masks made compulsory on public transport, new cases have lately stood at about 450 per day, from a peak of 7,500. Since easing the lockdown, the weekly number of Covid-19 patients sent to hospital has more than halved. France is to allow all businesses to resume and all children to return to school from Monday.

“We are going to get back to our art de vivre and recover our taste for liberty,” Mr Macron told the French on June 14.

Similar promising trends have been observed across Europe. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which monitors the pandemic in 31 countries including the UK, new daily cases have declined 82 per cent since April 9, when they reached a peak, with only three countries reporting higher numbers than in the past two to three months, during the height of the outbreak.

Chart showing that there have not been new spikes in infections as European countries have reopened

In Spain, according to contentious official figures, only 154 cases were diagnosed on Thursday, compared with 373 registered on May 11 when the country began to carefully lift its own harsh restrictions. Overall daily case rates have fallen 98 per cent since the peak in late March.

A senior Spanish health official said infections were continuing to decline, if at a lower rate than two months ago, before the lockdown was eased. “The trend is still going down, although more gently,” he said, noting that a greater proportion of infections was now being detected because of better testing.

Italy has also been detecting 200-300 new infections per day this month. Germany last week recorded about 300 cases per day on average, down from around 4,000 per day from March to April.

The exceptions in Europe are the UK, which was late imposing restrictions, and Sweden, which never implemented any: both were still detecting more than 1,000 new daily cases in the week through June 17.

The emergence of clusters is a constant reminder the epidemic can rebound, however.

Infections in Rouen, north-west of Paris, have pushed the virus’ reproduction rate — so-called R — above 1.5 in the region, meaning one Covid-19 patient on average infects more than one person. Over the weekend, 1,000 people linked to an abattoir tested positive in North Rhine-Westphalia, taking Germany’s R number to 2.88, from 1.06 — albeit from a low number of cases to start with.

Calella beach in Barcelona attracted large numbers of people on the weekend © Alejandro Garcia/EPA/Shutterstock

Reimpositions of restrictions in South Korea and Beijing also suggest caution is in order. The number of infections in France remain higher than what those countries would accept.

France is better prepared for a second wave. When the pandemic struck, it lacked testing capacity, faced equipment shortages and had to transfer patients to Germany and Switzerland. As a result the country paid a high price to the pandemic with more than 29,575 deaths, one of the world’s highest figure per capita.

It has built up its testing capacity to 700,000 per week and trained a staff of 6,500 people to do contact tracing. As the disease ebbs, such resources are not being used fully. About 194,000 diagnostic tests were performed last week, and less than a third of the contact tracers are still at work tracking down infections.

Yonathan Freund, an emergency doctor at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris said operations were now “back to normal” after a flood of Covid-19 patients in April.

Chart showing that new hospitalisations of Covid patients in France have slowed to a trickle

“All the signals [were] very, very positive,” he told the Financial Times. “The epidemic has been stopped in its tracks, even if we are not really sure why . . . If it comes back we’ll see it much earlier and be able to take measures to socially distance and test and isolate people.”

The pandemic is retreating from minds too. In Paris, café terraces are crowded, traffic is back and fewer passers-by wear masks. Romain Siavy, a hair stylist, said some of his clients have stopped wearing masks. Uptake of the government’s smartphone tracking app has been low: over the past two weeks, only 1.7m users have downloaded it, or 2 per cent of the population.

Some public health officials are worried the epidemic will gather pace again as complacency settles in.

“The first wave is ending in Europe and in France, but the epidemic is far from over and the virus is still circulating in a heterogenous way,” Jérôme Salomon, a health ministry official, told parliament on Tuesday. “It would be irresponsible not to prepare for a second wave in autumn or winter.” He added he expected more cases during the summer holidays.

Martin Blachier, an epidemiologist at Universite de Versailles Saint Quentin, cautioned France’s increased testing and tracing capacity may not withstand a second wave.

“The health brigades can handle a situation like the current one where the virus is circulating at a low level,” he said. “But they will be overwhelmed if infections accelerate.”

Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Berlin and Domitille Alain in Paris