By Caroline Pailliez and Leigh Thomas
PARIS (Reuters) – The French government’s anti-COVID-19 measures are having half the impact in encouraging Parisians to stay at home as the restrictions in France’s first lockdown, data shows, underscoring why epidemiologists say the curbs are too weak to stop a third wave of infection over-running hospitals.
Google data shows residents in the capital, the epicenter of a fast-spreading third wave of infections, are spending just 20% more time at home than during pre-crisis times, compared with 40% during the strict three-month lockdown last spring.
The data reflects the tough reality confronting President Emmanuel Macron, who, according to one source close to the government, will have to decide on Wednesday whether to resort once again to a draconian lockdown that risks upending economic activity.
“We have to limit the spread of the virus and we won’t do that with these half-measures,” said Gilles Pialoux, head of infectious diseases at the Tenon hospital in Paris.
The government closed some non-essential stores and limited how far people could travel, adding to a nationwide nightly curfew, in the hardest hit regions on March 20.
While Apple Maps data shows a slight fall in journeys made by car, public transport or on foot, people remain on the move more than during either the spring or autumn lockdowns.
To be sure, part of this is by design. Macron wants to keep the euro zone’s second largest economy open and allow citizens to spend time outdoors. But it also underlines the extent to which government appeals for people to voluntarily restrict their movements are falling on deaf ears.
Intensive care wards are reaching breaking point. In Paris, there are now more COVID-19 patients in ICUs than at the peak of the second wave in November, and critical care wards are operating at 140% of normal bed capacity.
‘CRUSH THE VIRUS’
Macron will convene his COVID-19 war room on Wednesday at a time the surge in coronavirus infections is dragging the death count towards the 100,000 threshold.
The president has this year repeatedly sought to avoid another lockdown, counting on COVID-19 vaccines to reduce the numbers falling gravely ill.
But the vaccine rollout is only now hitting its stride, with about 12% of the population inoculated after three months. Meanwhile, the science shows a vaccinated person can still transmit the virus and it will not be until late summer before all adults have been offered a shot.
“You absolutely first have to crush the virus’ prevalence,” said Philippe Amouyel, head of epidemiology at Lille Hospital, “then afterwards comes the vaccine.”
A full-blown lockdown would entail closing schools and prohibiting people from leaving their home other than for essential reasons such as buying groceries, seeking medical help and exercise.
No decision has yet been taken, a government source said.
If a strict lockdown was imposed across France, the number of intensive care patients in the Paris region would peak at about 3,470 on April 22, according to Paris hospital trust forecasts that Reuters has seen.
If the decision was delayed by one week, that number would rise to 4,470 on April 29, the model predicts. During the first wave, ICU admissions peaked at 2,668.
Police unions told Reuters a full lockdown would be easier to enforce than the unwieldy array of rules now in place.
Last weekend crowds thronged the banks of the Seine in Paris. Police urged picnickers to sit apart but there was little evidence of checks being made on whether people had travelled further than the permitted 10 km (6.2 miles) to be there.
“We see that people now have a little less respect for the rules,” said Denis Jacob of the CFDT union’s police branch. “But it’s very difficult to enforce this set of rules.”
(Reporting by Caroline Pailliez and Leigh Thomas; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)