Getting the needle

Anti health pass demo in Poitiers, Saturday 17th July

As I write this, just three hours after saying that they would not do so, the UK Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have announced that they are self-isolating, having been in contact with the Minister of Health, who has tested positive for the Covid virus.

More than half a million isolation alerts were sent to people using the NHS Covid-19 app in England and Wales during the first week of July, a 46 per cent rise on the previous week.

Tomorrow is Boris Johnson’s Freedom Day.

The French and English strategies for dealing with the virus have diverged significantly this week, and one result of this is that the rules for travel between the two countries are becoming increasingly complicated. On Monday, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron both publicly announced the next stages in their respective countries’ battles against Covid 19.

Here in France, there were two significant changes. First, it will be mandatory for all staff working in hospitals, clinics, and retirement homes, and all workers who work in contact with elderly or vulnerable people, to be vaccinated by September 15th. Health Minister Olivier Véran has said that those who are not vaccinated will not be able to work, and will not be paid. Warning that it may be necessary to consider ‘compulsory vaccination for everybody in France’, the President said that for now the government is choosing to put ‘confidence’ in people to get vaccinated voluntarily ‘as soon as possible’.

The second major change is that from 21st July health passes will be required for all aged 12 and above to attend events of over fifty people. This will be extended to cafés, restaurants, shopping centres, hospitals, retirement homes, planes, and trains and coaches for long-distance journeys from the beginning of August. (Long-distance travel means TGV and Intercités trains, inter-regional coach trips, and all domestic and international flights. Local trains, buses, or trams will not be affected.) Masks remain compulsory on public transport and in all enclosed public spaces.

By contrast, and as expected, Boris Johnson announced that most Covid guidance and legal restrictions will be lifted in England tomorrow, Freedom Day. There will no longer be limits on how many people can meet, and the ‘1 metre plus’ rule will be removed (except in certain designated places, such as hospitals and passport control points). Masks will no longer be required by law but still recommended in public places. Limits on visitors to care homes will be removed. On 16th August, most Covid restrictions in schools will come to an end. From the same date, double-vaccinated adults may not need to self-isolate if they come into contact with someone who tests positive. The guidance recommending against travel to amber countries will be removed. Adults fully vaccinated in the UK will no longer have to quarantine for ten days after returning from an amber-list country.

In France, with the exception of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationale, all of the main political parties have endorsed President Macron’s strategy. Although there have been nationwide demonstrations, with a strong gilets jaunes presence, one senses that the vast majority of the population supports the new measures. Furthermore, they do seem to be having the desired effect. Within two days of the President’s television broadcast, over two million new vaccination appointments had been made. Prior to the announcement, only 46.5 per cent of 25­- to 29-year-olds in France had been vaccinated, and only 25.4 per cent had had their second injection. It was this age group that the new measures were targeting, and it was they, overwhelmingly, who responded by immediately making appointments.

There is a sense of walking through the looking glass when one examines the situation in the UK. There, it is the vociferous minority, the anti-vaxxers, who are supportive of Johnson’s policy, while the public at large are not so sure. A poll published in the Observer two days before his announcement found that 73 per cent of people thought that wearing masks on public transport should continue, while 50 per cent said that ‘freedom day’ should be pushed back beyond 19th July. The current steady rise in the numbers of cases and deaths is, inevitably, causing increasing public concern.

Case numbers in France are also on the rise. Though they are currently much lower than in the UK, we are yet to experience the full effect of the Delta variant here. In both countries, hopes are now riding on vaccine take-up being swift enough to keep the spread of the virus to manageable levels. I’m inclined to think that the recently announced French policy is more likely to ensure this. However, with the possibility of a new variant emerging at any time, I’d be reluctant to bet the house on it.

To continue the Alice in Wonderland analogy, the rules covering travel between the two countries are getting curiouser and curiouser. On Friday night, the UK government announced that France had been placed in a new ‘amber plus’ category – halfway between amber and red – under the government’s traffic light system for travel. From 19th July, all those travelling from France to the UK, even if double-vaccinated, will continue to have to quarantine at home for ten days, taking tests on (or before) the second day and on (or after) the eight day (with the possibility of release after five days). The UK government is worried about the prevalence in France of the Beta variant, first identified in South Africa and thought to be partially resistant to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is used for the majority of UK jabs.

Meanwhile, as of midnight tonight (Sunday), unvaccinated UK visitors to France will now have to show a negative PCR or antigen test that is less than 24 hours old, rather than the 48 hours allowed previously. If you’ve had both doses, you’ll now be exempt from providing a test to enter French territory. Once these conditions are met, there is currently no requirement to quarantine when in France.

So, as things stand, once vaccinated, travel from the UK to France is relatively straightforward. Travel in the other direction is much more complicated.

There is a significant anomaly in the cost of testing in the two countries. My friend Christopher recently made a return journey between them and provided a helpful breakdown of the costs (this was before the most recent announcements):

Going from the UK to France: mandatory UK PCR test £80, optional French PCR test €0.

Going from France to the UK: mandatory French PCR test €0, mandatory UK day 2 and day 8 tests £140, optional UK test and release £90.

(In his last TV address, President Macron stated that at some as yet unspecified date in the autumn, CPR tests in France will no longer be free for non-residents but will cost a maximum of €49.)

***

The latest bit of graffiti to appear in our street: ‘Nobody is born free under capitalism and hierarchy.’ You may not agree with the sentiment, but you have to admire the syntax, spelling, and correct use of accents. Far better than mine.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1865, the Duke of Buckingham was blown from Holborn to Euston through a pneumatic tube intended for parcels.

If you lift a kangaroo’s tail off the ground, it can’t hop.

The Scottish mountain Bod an Deamhain, ‘penis of the demon’, is usually translated into English as the Devil’s Point.

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