The New York Times - USA (2020-10-16)

(Antfer) #1


Tracking an OutbreakGlobal Response

PARIS — France thought it had
beaten the coronavirus. Its come-
back in a roaring second wave left
the government scrambling this
week for a half-measure that un-
derscored its ugly choices.
The French president, Emman-
uel Macron, highlighted his own
dilemma on Wednesday in an-
nouncing a curfew for Paris and
eight other major cities. A new
lockdown for an already reeling
economy would have been “dis-
proportionate,” he said, yet the
pressure on intensive care beds
was intolerable. “Our caregivers
are exhausted,” he said.
“The virus is recirculating very
rapidly in Europe and in our coun-
try,” Mr. Macron said in an inter-
view on national television.
France had to “take back control.”
If the virus ever was under con-
trol in France, that was before the
summer. But, experts say, after
that moment, the French, like so
many others elsewhere in Europe,
let their guard down.
France’s attachment to its sum-
mer holidays, young people’s exu-
berance in going out and partying,
a lack of vigilance in wearing
masks and social distancing, the
risks of resuming routine life, and
the government’s failure — from
the very start — to effectively test,
trace and isolate infected people
have all contributed to an explo-
sive second wave of infections.
Whether ordering people, start-
ing Saturday, to stay in their
homes from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. is the
answer — restaurant owners and
young people are already grum-
bling — cannot be known immedi-
ately. But the dire outlook was un-
deniable. With France averaging
nearly 20,000 new cases a day,
health experts have been warning
all week that the virus is out of
control, particularly in cities.
“Right now, we’ve got to put the
brakes on it,” said Yazdan Yazdan-
panah, an infectious disease spe-
cialist on the French govern-
ment’s Covid-19 advisory panel.
“This curfew will limit contacts,”
he said. “We’ve got to lower the
rate right away. We don’t really
have a choice.”
Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiolo-
gist at the University of Montpel-
lier, said that the curfew came in
“the last possible week to react” to
prevent hospital saturation. He
noted that a study found that a
curfew imposed in French Guiana
reduced infections by 36 percent.
Until Wednesday night, Mr. Ma-
cron’s own indecision had empha-
sized the quandary faced by gov-
ernments all over Europe caught
between faltering economies —
France is facing a recession of
nearly 9 percent — restriction-
weary populations and a virus
that will not quit.
The government’s hesitancy
was palpable this week. The
prime minister, Jean Castex,
chided the French for having “de-
cided a little too quickly” that the
virus no longer posed a threat.
The same day, the tourism min-
ister, Jean Baptiste Lemoyne,
urged people to go on vacation

during the upcoming school
break, to prop up the country’s vi-
tal tourism industry, whose reve-
nues are half what they were a
year ago.
Mr. Macron himself acknowl-
edged the impossibility of barring
upcoming French vacation-going
in his remarks on Wednesday
Lulled by a relatively successful
handling of the first wave, the gov-
ernment failed to firmly put in
place a critical triptych over the
summer — testing, tracing and
isolation. The numbers are not as
high as they were last spring, but
they are bad enough. Nearly 100
people died in the 24 hours ending
Thursday morning, far below the
1,000-plus death tolls of mid-April
but still alarming.
Cases, flat through June and
July, have been rising steadily
since August, with 27,000 positive
tests reported last Saturday. An
infection rate of 5 to 6 cases per
100,000 people over the summer

has spiraled to nearly 200 across
France. It is up to 800 for 20- to 30-
year-olds in Paris. The govern-
ment has set the red alert limit at
In the interim, bars and gyms
have been shut in major cities. Es-
tablishments that serve food re-
main open, even if cafe owners re-
port confusion about what quali-
fies as enough of a meal to keep
the police off their backs.
There have been mixed mes-
sages, too, about going back to of-
fices. The president of the region
that includes Paris, Valérie
Pécresse, appealed for a return
last month, even as infections
started to rise. The result is that
central Paris bustles with office
workers, compared with mori-
bund downtowns in the United
States, though nearly everybody
wears a mask. On Wednesday, Mr.
Macron encouraged at least a par-
tial return to telecommuting.
The gestation of the current in-
fection boom was plainly visible in

July, August and September. Vis-
itors packed France’s summer
watering holes after the govern-
ment encouraged tourism, anx-
ious also not to get crosswise of
the sacred ritual that is the French
summer holiday.
A wave of indignation greeted
mild suggestions that workers
should give up some vacation
days to compensate for those lost
during the lockdown.
In Paris, as they returned from
these hot spots, young people
spilled from crowded bars onto
the sidewalks in the city’s bohe-
mian eastern districts and
massed along the banks of the
Seine. There was no social dis-
tancing and few masks. France
thought the virus was tamed.
“There was certainly a lack of
understanding in a part of the pop-
ulation that didn’t believe in a sec-
ond wave,” said Renaud Piarroux,
an epidemics specialist at Pitié-
Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris.
“Some in the younger population

abandoned the necessary precau-
tions,” he said, like wearing a
mask and social distancing.
Before Mr. Macron’s announce-
ment on Wednesday, several
health experts predicted a severe
reckoning in the coming weeks.
“It’s all over,” William Dab, a
former national director of public
health who has been critical of the
government’s response, said ear-
lier this week. “We’ve lost the
fight. It’s out of control.”
Mr. Dab chided the government
for what he called a “strategy
deficit” that had not motivated in-
dividuals to change their behav-
ior. In the Paris region, he added,
“there is nothing left to be done.”
On Thursday, the police
searched the homes and offices of
several current and former offi-
cials, including the health min-
ister, Olivier Véran, as part of an
inquiry into the government’s re-
sponse to the pandemic. The
French Court of Justice, a special
court that hears accusations of of-

ficial mismanagement, opened
the investigation in July.
The one ray of hope in France,
as elsewhere, is that treatment
methods have improved since the
spring, allowing more patients to
be saved. Still, the head of Paris
hospitals, Martin Hirsch, warned
on Tuesday that coronavirus pa-
tients would most likely fill up to
90 percent of intensive care beds
in the capital by next week. Al-
ready more than 1,600 of France’s
5,000 intensive-care beds are
A report from independent ex-
perts, commissioned by the gov-
ernment and released this week,
concluded that France had done
far better than Britain, Sweden,
the United States and Southern
Europe, but not as well as Austria
or Germany.
The French obeyed the lock-
down imposed by the government
in March, April and May. Then,
with cases flatlining, they flocked
back into the streets, stores, cafes
and restaurants.
Citizens let down their guard,
reinforcing what Bernard Jomier,
a member of the French Senate
commission examining the gov-
ernment’s pandemic response,
termed a “collective deficit of pub-
lic health culture in our country.”
“We are a country where the
politics of prevention is not part of
our culture,” he said in an inter-
view this week. “There are ele-
ments in French society that are
favorable to the development of
the virus.”
The consequence has been a
“hesitation in the government’s
official line,” said Mr. Jomier, a
Greens party lawmaker who rep-
resents a Paris district. “The gov-
ernance of public health is not well
“Testing, tracing, isolating —
this has been a failure,” he said.
“Badly elaborated, badly imple-
At Charles de Gaulle Airport for
example, arriving travelers are
tested, but they do not get the re-
sults for at least a week.
Contact tracing has also
“failed,” Mr. Jomier said; Mr. Dab,
the former public health director,
called it a “fiasco” in an interview
in the Journal du Dimanche in
September, noting that the five
contacts traced per case in July
had dropped to two.
“The number of contacts is very
far below the actual number of
contacts,” said Mr. Piarroux, the
epidemics specialist. “It’s all hap-
pening over the phone. So there’s
less motivation” to divulge the
Both he and Mr. Jomier also
said that isolation, the third part of
the triptych, had hardly been en-
forced, pointing to out-of-control
infection rates in shelters that
house migrants.
On Thursday, French newspa-
pers grimly recalled the curfew
imposed during the German occu-
pation, and industry groups called
for new help for restaurants.
“We can’t work from 7 p.m. to 9
p.m.,” said Denis Kouch, the
owner of a restaurant off the
Champs-Élysées. “People don’t
even have time to arrive, and then
they have to leave right away?”


Macron Shies Away From Lockdown and Places Hope in Half-Measure


Constant Méheut and Antonella
Francini contributed reporting.


An interview with President Emmanuel Macron played on a TV in a closed bar on Wednesday in Paris, top. Mr. Macron imposed a
curfew on Paris and eight other cities. Treating a Covid-19 patient in a Paris hospital, above left, and the Paris subway, above right.


LONDON — Prime Minister
Boris Johnson has reached a mo-
ment of truth on the two issues
that have dominated Britain this
year: the pandemic and Brexit ne-
gotiations with the European Un-
ion. But he is still playing for time
— a strategy that could put lives
or livelihoods at risk if he waits too
On Thursday, Mr. Johnson
inched closer to imposing a sec-
ond lockdown on the country,
moving London to a higher level of
restrictions and signaling that he
wanted to move Manchester to
the highest level, joining Liver-
pool. But he stuck to his claim that
the best way to curb the virus was
through targeted responses, not
the two-week nationwide lock-
down pushed by the opposition
Labour Party and his own scientif-
ic advisers.
The prime minister also
seemed ready to string out trade
talks with Brussels, letting a self-
imposed deadline pass on Thurs-
day without a deal. While Mr.
Johnson could torpedo the negoti-
ations on Friday, after a two-day
summit meeting of European Un-
ion leaders, analysts said the
British government still appeared
eager to strike an agreement by
the legal deadline of Dec. 31.
For Mr. Johnson, Brexit and the
virus are linked: the economic
turmoil unleashed by the pan-
demic has raised the pressure on
him to avoid the self-inflicted dis-
ruption of a ruptured negotiation
with the European Union, and the
damaging prospect of beginning

the new year without a trade
agreement in place.
Yet his reluctance to move deci-
sively on either of them, analysts
say, risks making both worse.
Dragging out the talks with
Brussels could put Britain in a
bind if the two sides hit an impasse
as the clock runs out. Putting off a
short lockdown — which experts
have dubbed a “circuit breaker” —
could vitiate its effectiveness in
curbing the virus’s spread and ne-
cessitate a longer lockdown later,
according to medical experts.
“If you’re going to do it, do it
early, fast and hard,” said Devi
Sridhar, chair of the global public
health program at the University
of Edinburgh. “The longer they
delay, the less likely a two-week
circuit breaker will work.”
Scientists have proposed that
the government schedule the tem-
porary lockdown for the last week
of October and first week of No-
vember, when schools are closed
for mid-term break, to make it less
disruptive. But some experts
questioned whether that would
leave enough time to prepare the
public for the restrictions.
Britain has missed its chance at
earlier action on a mid-term lock-
down that might have stemmed
the latest surge, but it could still be
valuable in slowing the spread,
said Graham Medley, professor of
infectious disease modeling at the
London School of Hygiene and
Tropical Medicine, who advises
the government. “We haven’t
missed the boat of it epidemiologi-
cally as a strategy,” he said.
Britain has recorded about
16,000 new coronavirus cases per
day, on average, over the past

week — the most since the pan-
demic began, and a tenfold in-
crease in just six weeks. Nearly
800 people were admitted to hos-
pitals on Thursday, and 563 pa-
tients were on ventilators, raising
fears that intensive care units will
soon be overwhelmed.
The figures have climbed
sharply despite an array of new
restrictions adopted after govern-
ment scientists warned last
month that without further action,
the caseload could reach 50,000 a
day by this point.
While the outbreak has been
worst in the north and west of
England, there are signs that it is
spreading across the country. The
mayor of London, Sadiq Khan,
pressed the government to raise
the city’s status to a high alert lev-

el, which prohibits indoor socializ-
ing by people from different
households, as of Saturday.
But other mayors lashed out
against the restrictions. Andy
Burnham, the mayor of Greater
Manchester, rejected the move to
elevate his city to the highest-risk
tier, which involves closing pubs
and gyms. Mr. Burnham, who like
Mr. Khan is a member of the La-
bour Party, demanded that the
government provide more finan-
cial aid to pubs and other busi-
nesses that he said would be dev-
astated by the lockdown.
“We will not cave into all the
pressure that is being applied to
us,” the mayor said in an angry
video posted on Twitter. “We will
not let them be leveled down by
this government through this pan-

For weeks now, Mr. Johnson has
balanced calls from his scientific
advisers for tighter measures
with warnings from members of
his Conservative Party that a lock-
down or similarly draconian
measures would wreck the econ-
The political consensus that
once characterized Britain’s re-
sponse to the pandemic has now
fractured in both parties, however.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer,
threw his weight behind a tempo-
rary lockdown, while Mr. Johnson
remains at odds not only with
members of his party but also with
some in his cabinet: the popular
chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi
Sunak, is resisting the push for a
“We are effectively burning the
furniture to keep warm now,” said
Steve Baker, a Conservative law-
maker and one of the leaders of a
campaign for Parliament to have a
greater say over coronavirus
rules. “If we have to continue like
that for another three to six
months until there is a vaccine,
that poses grave risks to the econ-
Adding to the pressure on Mr.
Johnson, public-opinion surveys
show clear support in the British
public for stricter measures, up to
and including a “circuit breaker”
— though Britons are split about a
lengthier lockdown. By embrac-
ing the idea, analysts said, Mr.
Starmer had effectively boxed in
Mr. Johnson.
“If the prime minister moves to-
ward a national lockdown, that
will look like he’s changed his
mind and moved toward Keir

Starmer,” said Keiran Pedley, di-
rector of politics at Ipsos/MORI, a
polling company. “If he doesn’t,
then Labour will presumably say
in response to any bad news, ‘You
should have listened to us.’ From a
political situation, Keir Starmer
doesn’t face much risk.”
However treacherous the politi-
cal landscape for Mr. Johnson, the
Labour Party’s call for a lockdown
might actually strengthen the
prime minister’s hand with his
own party in the short term. Mr.
Johnson’s Conservative critics,
some observers say, may realize
that with public opinion and the
opposition running against them,
they cannot hope for more than
the prime minister’s efforts to
seek a middle ground.
“It is dawning on them that this
is as good as you are going to get,”
said David Gauke, a Conservative
former lawmaker who fell out
with Mr. Johnson over Brexit. “No
prime minister is going to be more
libertarian than Boris Johnson in
this particular set of circum-
This time last year, Mr. Johnson
faced down resistance by Mr.
Baker and his hardline allies on
Brexit. He did it by talking tough
with Brussels and then cutting a
deal that he presented as a tri-
umph — a playbook he appears to
be trying to use again.
Mr. Johnson’s aides insist a
trade agreement is within reach if
talks can be intensified on the key
issues: fishing quotas and state
aid to industry. But the longer
they drag on, the greater the un-
certainty for British exporters —
and the greater the leverage for


Amid a Rising Second Wave and a Brexit Deadline, Johnson Stalls for Time


Prime Minister Boris Johnson stopped short of imposing a two-
day nationwide lockdown that experts called a “circuit breaker.”

Free download pdf