(CN) — Saying the coronavirus has overwhelmed France, bringing it to the doorstep of a new wave of death, French President Emmanuel Macron has ordered France back into its second national lockdown, a major blow to Europe’s hopes for a speedy recovery from the pandemic.
Macron made his announcement on French television Wednesday night. In neighboring Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel also announced a partial national lockdown with the closing of bars and restaurants and other restrictions, such as bans on large gatherings, starting on Monday. With two of Europe’s largest nations reentering national lockdowns, other European countries face the same fate.
France is set to begin the new lockdown on Friday with bars, restaurants and nonessential businesses ordered to close until the middle of December. Travel between regions will also be restricted, and French citizens are being told they will only be able to leave home to go to work, buy groceries, exercise and attend to essential needs. With schools, public offices, factories and construction sites allowed to remain open, this new lockdown will not be as severe as the first one in the spring.
“The virus is spreading throughout France at a pace which even the most pessimistic projections had not forecast,” Macron said. “We are currently overwhelmed by the pace at which this virus is spreading, because this virus is gaining in strength as winter approaches and the outside temperatures drop.”
He added that “all of us in Europe have been taken aback by the extent of this virus,” and that “we are currently being faced with a second wave and we know that this second wave will be even harder and more lethal than the first.”
The data from France is grim. By Wednesday, it registered 527 new deaths in a single day, its highest death toll since April, and the number of new infections has doubled in recent weeks. In the past 10 days, France has recorded between 20,000 and 50,000 new cases each day. Macron said intensive care units across France are filling up with coronavirus patients and that life-saving operations at hospitals are being postponed in the hardest-hit areas. He said 9,000 people are projected to need intensive care by the middle of November, a number that threatens to overwhelm France’s hospitals.
He admitted the measures France used to stop the virus were not enough and said people had not taken adequate steps to stop the virus. Despite wide-scale testing and tracing of potentially infected people, a lockdown was the only option left without putting many more thousands of people’s lives at risk, he said. About 35,785 people in France have died since the beginning of the pandemic, one of the highest tolls in Europe.
In explaining his reasoning for the lockdown and rejecting arguments for so-called “herd immunity,” he said it was more important to protect lives than the economy.
“We can’t pit one against the other,” the French president said. “You can’t have a prosperous economy when you have a virus that is circulating throughout the nation actively.”
He said herd immunity entails letting up to 60% of the population get infected, and that strategy is simply wrong. Herd immunity is the epidemiological situation when enough people have built up resistance to a contagious disease that it can no longer find new people to infect and dies out. Typically, this is done through vaccines.
“Some would say that we could do nothing and just let the virus continue to circulate throughout the nation,” he said. “But in the very short term, what would that mean? That would mean triage for patients when they turn up at hospitals; that would mean some 400,000 additional dead. France could never stand by and see hundreds of thousands of its citizens die. It is not a French value and it’s not in our interest.”
He also dismissed the option of placing only the elderly and vulnerable into lockdown.
“A second option would be to put only those people at risk in lockdown,” he said. “To me that is not a viable solution because it raises a number of ethical issues. But on top of that the elderly, the most vulnerable in society, need us, they need us to be in contact with them.”
He also said the virus appears to be “mutating into more dangerous forms and affecting the younger generations.” Keeping only the vulnerable under lockdown, then, he said would not work.
He said another option he looked at was relying on rigorous testing and contact tracing, which involves tracking down people who have been in contact with an infected person. But he said France has carried out that strategy and it has not worked. He noted France does about 1.9 million tests a week and about 100,000 calls are made each day to track down contacts.
“But with that in place we still have some 40,000 to 50,000 people detected every day so this system that we have tried over the past few months just does not work,” he said.
He also rejected the idea that a lockdown can be avoided by simply boosting the health care system. He said without imposing lockdown the scale of the disaster would overwhelm the country’s hospitals.
France has already added 1,000 more intensive care units and hopes to double its ICU beds to 10,000, as the country still has the same number as at the start of the pandemic. He said France has stockpiles of personal protective equipment and medicine ready and trained 700 more nurses and doctors.
“But this is not sufficient in the short term nor in the medium term,” he said.
Macron said the government will provide financial aid to businesses and workers hurt by the lockdown.
He urged people to help local businesses, for example by ordering meals from restaurants barred from serving food inside their premises.
“It is up to all of us to act as citizens, to act civically minded, to stay at home when you can, because it is up to all of us to act,” he said.
He said the hope is that this lockdown will bring the number of new infections down from 40,000 a day now to about 5,000. If that happens, he said, France could open up again in time for Christmas.
“We hope that we will be able to truly enjoy Christmas in the true spirit of the festive season with our families and loved ones by our sides,” he said.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.