There is madness, there is hysteria and then there is the suggestion that travellers in France might soon, once again, be quarantined on their return to Britain. Oh, for heaven’s sake.
Of course, I’m biased. I live in France and love it when people from my home country travel here perhaps to share my appreciation of the country. I also want the country’s travel industry to prosper and, not least, for people to carry on reading articles about France, of which I supply a few.
Nor do I underestimate the effect of the coronavirus. I know only one person who has had it and, though it was a mild version not requiring a hospital stay, it knocked her sideways for 10 days. “I wouldn’t want it again,” she said. “That said, I can’t think of any illness I would really want again.”
More than 30,300 French people have died (as against 46,410 Britons). It goes without saying that the state of affairs is vastly serious. No-one doubts that. But the question here is whether the situation in France is presently so bad as to risk ruining the holidays of thousands of British people, not to mention administering another blow to the French tourist industry and those important elements of the British travel industry which work with France.
France’s 14-day cumulative number of cases stands presently at 26 per 100,000 people. The equivalent figure for Britain is 16.5. Quarantine was imposed on travellers from Spain when that country’s figure edged over 37 (it is now up to 78.5). Thus, France is well short of the Spanish statistic and, as infectious disease specialist Professor Eric Caumes said: “We’re concerned but, for the time being, the curve of cases is controllable.”
We also need to keep things in perspective. Yesterday, there were 21 Covid-19 deaths in the UK, and 14 in France. Given that, on a normal, non-pandemic day, 1.660 French people die, the percentage increase due to the disease was well under one per cent. To put it another way, almost as many people die on French roads – around nine a day – as from this disease. And, as far as I know, no-one has ever suggested that we stop people going to France because of the lunatic driving.
Please – I know that lunatic driving is a different kettle of poissons: it’s not contagious, for a start (though I have my doubts when on the Parisian périphérique). And it’s true that cases of (as opposed to deaths from) Covid-19 are rising in France. There were 785 yesterday, as opposed to 400 a day at the start of June. But what did we expect? French strict lockdown ended on June 2, so – as people began to circulate again – the number of cases was almost bound to rise a little. Furthermore, back then, the country was managing 200,000 tests a week. The figure is now 600,000 – with many concentrated in areas where clusters have been identified. A significant increase in the number and targeting of tests could hardly but lead to an increase in identification of cases.
The ratio of positive tests remains, incidentally, much the same. All this makes France seem a safe-enough place to be. If you were here for a week, your chances of crossing paths with someone newly infected would be under two in a thousand. Even then, there’s little likelihood you’d catch anything. From admittedly anecdotal evidence, French people are being pretty responsible in the matter of gels, social distancing and mask-wearing. Not that they have much choice. Masks are obligatory inside all buildings where the public gather – shops, cinemas and the rest – and they’re also to be worn outside in many towns and cities, including Riviera spots such as Nice, Menton and St Tropez, and busy bits of Paris.
In the last two weeks, I’ve been to two outdoor wine festivals – it’s a summer duty I’ve long fulfilled – where conviviality was only minimally impacted by the fact that our wine-making hosts wore masks (as did many of the visitors, until it was time to sip), that gel was abundant and that most people kept their distance. Granted, part of the increase in French cases is ascribed to gatherings of young people in parks and on night-time beaches but, if you’re like me you’ll find these remarkably easy to avoid: listen out for bongo drums and walk smartly in the opposite direction.
The other day, I mentioned all this to my neighbour, a fellow who likes to keep tabs on failings in Britain that he might mention them in passing over aperitifs or the garden fence, whichever is relevant to the hour. “If I were going to London today, it wouldn’t be the virus that worried me,” he said. “I’d be more frightened of your stabbings.”
“My stabbings?” I said. If he is representative of Frenchmen, as I think he is, then they’re going to be miffed indeed if we decide their country is not safe enough for Britons. The suspicion, surely, is that one is as likely to risk catching the disease by travelling within Britain – and, say, planning a break in Preston, Lancs – as one is by crossing the Channel. In such circumstances, it seems literally bonkers to enforce suffering on holidaymakers and on those who serve them in the name of some apparently spurious concern for safety.
It also raises the question of... when do we stop? If there’s another mini-spike in autumn or winter or spring 2021, do we haul everyone home again, thus killing off tourism once and for all with a little light laugh? My thought is that, every time Foreign Office staff impose quarantine on a given nation, they are docked 10% of their wages – not as punishment, oh no, but so that they might understand that every such decision has dire economic consequences. Of course, the only upside to all this is that enforcement of quarantine on returning Britons is so fabulously efficient... or, um, have I been misinformed?