France’s Covid stoicism has put Britain to shame

9 June 2021

8:51 PM

9 June 2021

8:51 PM

I feel like a teenager again. Tonight I’m allowed out until 11pm. What’s more, I’m permitted to go inside my local bar if it gets a little chilly late on. Merci, Monsieur Macron.

I imagine every other adult in France is a little excited today as the country continues its return to normality post-Covid.

The curfew, imposed at the start of the year, has been extended by two hours and restaurants and bars – whose terraces have been open for business since May 19 – are now able to open at full capacity. If all goes well the curfew will be lifted on June 30, as will the wearing of face masks outside.

The French are funny about their masks. For a minority they’ve become a fetish, a comfort blanket in a world they can longer make sense of. Masks don’t need to be worn when exercising but I have seen numerous people – predominantly younger joggers – pounding the streets of Paris in a mask. Even the man who slappedEmmanuel Macron yesterday in south-eastern France was dutifully wearing his mask. I’m equally baffled by drivers who wear a mask alone in their cars. Who knew you could catch Covid from yourself?

But I shouldn’t mock. In most other respects the French have been stoic during the long months of lockdown. They’ve benefited from a leadership which has floundered at times during the crisis like other governments, but has also striven to ensure essential services continue.

In the last 12 months schools have remained open except for a week before the Easter holidays but otherwise teachers and their unions have shown a fortitude sadly lacking in many of their British counterparts.

Take dentists and GPs in Britain. In France doctors’ surgeries remained open throughout the pandemic. Patients have been able to book a video consultation if they wished, but face to face appointments have always been available, and indeed encouraged by GPs.

Dentists closed during the first confinement but have remained open since. I saw mine last month at short notice and, after he’d dealt with my chipped tooth, I told him about the situation in the UK: of patients forced to do their own dentistry and waiting times stretching into months. He was incredulous.

The fundamental difference between the approaches of the British and French governments since March 2020 has been one of fear. The former stoked it, quite purposely, to manipulate the population into subservience. They found willing collaborators in the broadcast media, who whipped up nationwide hysteria by parroting the party line.

The French government, for the most part, never indulged in such a strategy: Keep Calm and Carry On is their mantra. That accounts for why last August, after the first lockdown, the French were one of the quickest to return to their offices in Europe, and the British the most reluctant. It also explains why as of today the French – if vaccinated or tested for Covid – can travel anywhere within Europe as well as visit Japan, South Korea, Israel and Singapore.

It’s a damning illustration of Britain’s timidity that France could be fully open for business before its neighbour if, as many expect, Boris Johnson pushes back ‘Freedom Day’ to July 5, five days after France’s Jour de la Liberté. Britain’s winter peak of Covid cases was reached in late January, three months before France’s. Yet in the last few weeks France has shown a determination to open up as quickly as possible despite the fact that their vaccine rollout has been slow in comparison to Britain’s, with only 13m fully vaccinated compared to 28m in Britain.

Deaths are diminishing in France with only 72 in the last 24 hours (59 more than in the UK) but Macron and his scientific advisers accept that zero Covid is not realistic. On the primetime news on Tuesday evening the chairman of the Covid Scientific Council, Professor Jean-François Delfraissy, struck an optimistic note, downplaying a suggestion from his interviewer that the Indian variant threatened the country’s return to freedom.

The French have been mercifully spared an equivalent to the doomsayer duo of Whitty and Valance. The closest they’ve got it is a retired epidemiologist called Catherine Hill who, as her surname suggests, married into the Anglophone world. Being of the same gloomy bent as SAGE, Hill has been invited on British television to scold France for lacking Britain’s apprehension. Fortunately President Macron hasn’t taken too much notice of the scientist, no doubt aware that in 2018 she criticisedhim for drinking a glass of wine with his meals.

I suspect Madame Hill won’t approve of my behaviour tonight. But as I uncork another bottle in the warmth of my local bar I’ll raise a glass to her, and to all my poor friends trapped in Britain.

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