Covid-19: France considers introducing series of ‘stop and go’ lockdowns

Commuters wearing protective face masks make their way along a suburban train platform as they arrive at the Gare du Nord RER station in Paris during a lockdown imposed to slow the rate of Covid-19 in France, April 27, 2020.
Commuters wearing protective face masks make their way along a suburban train platform as they arrive at the Gare du Nord RER station in Paris during a lockdown imposed to slow the rate of Covid-19 in France, April 27, 2020. © Gonzalo Fuentes, REUTERS

France on Tuesday announced a plan to start lifting its nationwide coronavirus lockdown on May 11, but the government is already anticipating how to reintroduce limits in the event of a second wave of the outbreak.


Faced with the reopening of schools and businesses and the return of some employees to their workplaces after May 11, health professionals have warned of the possibility of a new wave of coronavirus contagion in France. To prevent this, the authorities are exploring a “stop and go” strategy, consisting of alternating periods of lockdown and eased restrictions.

Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye addressed the approach in an interview with Le Monde by saying, "this is one of the possibilities, especially if virus clusters develop in certain territories".

"The aim is to allow the health system to be able to cope after the end of lockdown, but also to allow the French to learn to live with the virus," she said.

French President Emmanuel Macron has warned against making any hasty moves that would lead to a reintroduction of stricter measures. "The worst thing would be to reopen too quickly, too hard, and then be forced to close again," said Macron during an exchange with religious authorities on April 21.

The following day, during a visit to a supermarket in Finistère in western Brittany, Macron also mentioned this possibility: "You have to make regular progress and be very careful at each of these stages, because you don't want to take steps backwards."

"We must not jeopardise this effort by going back to normal too quickly," he added.

Years of ‘stop and go’?

For economist Daniel Cohen, the driving forces behind ending the lockdown are not health considerations. 

"We are ending the lockdown for the economy in France and it is the same in almost every country," he explained to FRANCE 24. "The economy is in a state of hibernation. The INSEE (National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies) said that only vital functions are continuing. Half of the employees in the private sector no longer work and productivity is at a standstill. This is a very brutal situation and we have to start producing goods again."

However, even with a gradual reopening of society, a resurgence of infections is to be expected. According to a study by the Institut Pasteur last week, less than 6 percent of the French population will have been infected by the new coronavirus by May 11.

"For herd immunity to be at a sufficient level to avoid a second wave, 70 percent of people would need to be immunised," Simon Cauchemez, the main author of the study, told AFP. Moreover, the World Health Organization said it is not yet known what level of immunity is offered by having recovered from the virus or having antibodies – or for how long. 

As the number of new cases rises concurrently with eased restrictions, another lockdown is highly probable to avoid saturating hospital services.

"There is a study from the Harvard School of Public Health which foresees 'stop-and-go' situations for several more years, until we have a vaccine," explained Cohen.  

British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson shares this theory. In an article published on the Imperial College London website in March, he explained that to achieve a complete flattening of the transmission curve, lockdowns and easements would have to be alternated a number of times, "until large stocks of vaccine are available to immunise the population, which could potentially be for 18 months or more".

Repeated lockdowns require discipline

Repeated lockdowns would extend the expected recessions by months or even years. "For the economy, this is obviously bad news, as it is for the people. This means that any expected rebound will not actually take place," said Cohen.

And even if the stop-and-go strategy works on paper, it will be difficult to apply it in practice. Astrid Vabret, head of the virology department at Caen University Hospital, has envisioned a new round of "stop and go" every fortnight in comments to France 3 Normandie. But she points out that there would be difficulties: "It remains to be seen if this is possible to apply it because it requires the population to be very disciplined."

Chloé Hecketsweiler, a health specialist at Le Monde, is also sceptical. "It doesn't necessarily work in real life. People will get bored, lockdown is complicated to maintain," she said in a podcast earlier this month. “Politically, this scenario is difficult to defend and it will be very difficult to get economic life back on track."

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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