France Has Lockdown Lessons for Boris Johnson

Optimism about Covid-19 vaccines has quickly turned to pessimism about how slowly they’re being rolled out — and the grim realization that stay-at-home restrictions will be with us for longer as a result.

This is being felt acutely in Europe, where Brits are now in their third national lockdown, barely a month after the second one ended. Ireland has also reintroduced tougher curbs. Both countries have seen cases and hospitalizations pile up this winter.

What makes these new measures especially bleak is their closure of schools, sapping faith that less draconian restrictions could slow transmission in a more selective and humane way. As vaccine rollouts gather speed, governments don’t want to take any chances, especially given the new, more contagious B.1.1.7 variant of SARS-Cov-2 first found in the U.K.

Inevitable as this all seems, there are lessons to be learned about how we got here.

France Has Lockdown Lessons for Boris Johnson

France, for example, offers a useful counterpoint to what’s happening across the English Channel — as surprising as that seems, given the shambolic start to its national inoculation campaign. While the country has confirmed the B.1.1.7 variant has appeared, so far it hasn’t seen cases or hospital admissions spiral in the same the way as in Britain and Ireland. This despite having lifted its last lockdown just a couple weeks after London and Dublin. French schoolkids are back in class as planned.

It could be down to luck, or timing. But it might also be down to policy. France has kept several restrictions in place since a surge in cases after the summer holidays forced it into a second lockdown, including: mandatory mask-wearing, outdoors as well as indoors; the closure of restaurants, bars and gyms; and curfews. They haven’t all been uniformly applied, and the country’s total Covid-19 death toll is nothing to cheer about at more than 1,000 per million people (not far off the rate in the U.S. and the U.K.). But they’ve broadly stuck since October, and, crucially, kept the virus’s reproduction rate below one.

Compare that with what happened in the U.K. and Ireland after the last lockdown was lifted. In England, a system of “tiers” was introduced to better fit the rules to local needs, but even in the toughest ones gyms were allowed to reopen for individual exercise. For the first half of December, Londoners could eat meals in restaurants, party in pubs and attend sports events in what were deemed suitably distanced stadiums.

During that time, the U.K.’s overall restrictions were considered less stringent than the U.S.’s or France’s, according to the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker. It was all rather reminiscent of the U.K.’s summertime “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, which offered cheap meals to boost the restaurant sector even as scientists saw it as “epidemiologically illiterate.”

Google mobility data shows U.K. movement in retail and recreational areas picked up in December. Images of packed shopping avenues like London’s Regent Street showed little in the way of mask-wearing. SARS-Cov-2 had the freedom to roam.

The story was similar in Ireland, which had looked ahead of the curve when it reentered lockdown in the fall. The call for a “meaningful Christmas” after curbs were lifted led people to throw caution to the wind. Eating and drinking establishments reopened in December and were allowed to serve meals indoors. A rule setting the maximum dining time of 105 minutes looks particularly absurd. This all put the Irish government at odds with its own health advisers, who called for a more cautious approach. By the time the authorities tried to slam on the brakes on Christmas Eve, it was already too late. 

Sure, pointing fingers is easy in hindsight. There’s no way of knowing for sure what alternative policies would have delivered, and we’ve seen supposedly winning strategies — like Sweden’s hands-off approach or Germany’s decentralized system — proven wrong. The U.K. strain has probably played a role too, even though one Irish analysis found it in fewer than 10% of swabs in a batch.

But if there’s a lesson that keeps coming back, it’s that ending lockdowns safely is much harder than imposing them. Just as experts warned during the summer that relaxed holidaymakers were storing up trouble, perhaps those who said Yuletide celebrations would lead to January hangovers weren’t heeded enough. Vaccines are an alluring light at the end of the tunnel, but we shouldn't take our eye off the ball of social-distancing measures as they’re rolled out.

At this point, French President Emmanuel Macron is unlikely to leave anything to chance. France’s top scientific advisor has suggested looking at tougher curbs next week. If the country manages to hold on to its current track record of stable cases, it will be on a path worth following.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sam Fazeli is senior pharmaceuticals analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence and director of research for EMEA.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.