Concern is mounting among health experts that France is not doing enough to curb a rise in coronavirus infections, particularly among younger people, as a third wave fuelled by the B117 variant first detected in the UK accelerates across Europe.
Announcing 45,000 new Covid-19 cases in the past 24 hours, the French health minister, Olivier Véran, on Thursday banned outdoor gatherings of more than six people and added three more départements, including the area around Lyon, to 16 already placed under tougher mobility restrictions.
France is under a nightly curfew and restaurants, bars, museums and cinemas remain closed nationwide. Last week the government also shut non-essential shops and further limited movement in the Paris region and parts of the north, but it has so far held off taking stricter nationwide measures, seeking what it calls “a third way”.
Solen Kernéis, an infectious diseases specialist at Bichat hospital in northern Paris, told Agence France-Presse: “I understand the strategy of wanting to do gradual measures, but with the situation we are in I’m not sure that they are going to slow down the epidemic.
“For the last week, it’s been extremely worrying. The curve is really exponential. We’re in a sharply accelerating phase of the epidemic.”
Philippe Juvin, the head of emergency services at Paris’s Georges Pompidou hospital, said on Thursday that health services in and around the capital were close to saturation and a strict lockdown might be the only way to avoid a major crisis.
“We have hardly any margin for manoeuvre” in the Île-de-France region, where the 1,400 intensive care beds are almost fully occupied with Covid patients and new infections are running at 560 per 100,000 people, Juvin said. “The situation is critical.”
Aurélien Rousseau, the region’s health director, said hospitals had cancelled up to 80% of scheduled operations as they faced an “exceptionally violent” phase of the pandemic marked by an alarming increase in patients aged 20 to 50 needing treatment.
Health service figures for Île-de-France show the percentage of Covid patients aged under 59 had risen from 15.6% on 1 January to 24.3% on 23 March, while those aged over 60 had fallen from 83.3% to 74.4% over the same period.
Over the past 10 days, Antoine Vieillard-Baron, the head of the intensive care unit at one Paris hospital, told Le Monde that the proportion of patients aged under 60 admitted to ICU services “has approached 50% – much higher than in previous waves”.
Experts believe that the increase in serious cases in young people is linked to the B117 variant, though they are not sure why. “It’s the only explanation I see: the age curve has evolved in parallel with the variant,” Yves Cohen, the head of the ICU unit at another Paris region hospital, told the paper.
The concerns were echoed by Paris primary school teachers, who have called for strike action over what they said was a failure to protect staff and pupils by keeping schools open during a third wave that has propelled the number of new cases nationwide to more than 300 per 100,000 people, with the R rate now at 1.18.
The so-called British variant now accounts for 76.3% of new daily cases nationwide, with the original strain representing 10.3% and the mutations first described in South Africa and Brazil 4.7% combined. The incidence rate of those two variants is higher – though falling – in a handful of départements.
With new infections in Germany running at roughly one-third of the French rate, Berlin is likely on Friday to class France as a region with high coronavirus incidence levels, German media reported, triggering tighter travel regulations.
Britain also said this week it might toughen restrictions on arrivals from France, possibly placing the country on a travel “red list”, although the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has said such a move could seriously disrupt cross-Channel trade.
Amid a fast-accelerating third wave, infection numbers are rising across the continent. Germany on Thursday reported 22,657 new cases over the last 24 hours, a week-on-week rise of 5,000 and the highest daily rate since early January.
The figures were announced a day after Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a U-turn on plans for a strict Easter lockdown, originally intended as a circuit-breaker against what she had called “a new pandemic”.
In a 27-minute address to MPs on Thursday, Merkel acknowledged how difficult life was for many people but said vaccinations offered a way out of the crisis. “It will take a few more months, but the light at the end of the tunnel is visible,” she said.
“We will defeat this virus. Now it’s a matter of gathering strength and moving forward positively, even though the situation is difficult at the moment. That is what I want from everyone in this country.”
Central and eastern Europe has been particularly hard hit, with Hungary recording the world’s highest Covid-19 death rate by population over the past week. Its seven-day toll was 15.7 per 100,000 people, ahead of the Czech Republic on 12.7.
Poland set another consecutive daily record of coronavirus cases and announced that it would shut kindergartens, sports facilities and more non-essential shops from Saturday as it faced the “most difficult moment of the pandemic”.
As the national health agency reported 34,151 new infections on Thursday, the prime minister urged Poles to spend Easter at home with their immediate families but stopped short of announcing a full lockdown.
“Our health service is approaching the limit of its capacity,” Mateusz Morawiecki said. “We are one step away from not being able to treat patients properly … We must do everything to avoid this.”
Poland imposed a partial lockdown this month, shutting schools, theatres and museums nationwide. Cafes and restaurants have been closed except for takeaways since November.