Dunkirk Covid-19 outbreak offers bleak window into future as France vaccine programme lags

The French city of Dunkirk had long prided itself on being the main port of entry for Britons into Europe, and welcoming scores of British tourists to its beaches and wine shops. But in February, its proximity to Britain, where a more contagious variant of Covid-19 has spread like wildfire, quickly triggered a health crisis. “We’re an important point of entry into Europe for Britain.

This time it did not work out well for us,” Thomas Roussez, from the city hall, told the Telegraph. “We did not manage to detect [the variant] early enough. When we realised it we were already on very high rates,” he added.

All eyes in France are now fixed on Dunkirk and other similar hotspots like Nice. Panicked health officials are warning that the overwhelmed hospitals and rising epidemic is a window into what is to come for the rest of the country as the vaccination programme is in disarray. The jarring glimpse is a stark warning for Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who has faced increasing pressure to bring in new restrictions just as the UK is planning for its grand reopening.

It is a conundrum present across much of the continent, acutely felt in Central Europe where case rises are on the march once again. Dinkirk’s first cases of the so-called Kent variant are believed to have reached the city through truck drivers coming from Britain. Quickly, the city of 90,000 had the highest incidence rate of Covid-19 in the country.

Dunkirk’s Covid-19 rate has risen from 658 to 901 cases per 100,000 of the population in a week, more than four times the national average.

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These days, one person dies every day of the virus. Funeral homes take twice as long to ready bodies for burial because of the unprecedented numbers. The city’s main hospital reached its maximum capacity weeks ago, and doctors dread having to cancel surgeries as case numbers keep rising.

“We still have not at all reached the peak. We estimate that will be in two weeks,” said Dr Paupard, who heads the doctors’ commission at Dunkirk’s hospital. The southern city of Nice joined Dunkirk in being put under a strict weekend lockdown, the first time such a measure is applied locally in France.

In a Thursday address, prime minister Jean Castex asked local officials in ten other areas where cases are rising to propose plans for tighter restrictions, in a desperate bid to avoid a third national lockdown. These included Meurthe-et-Moselle, in northeast France, where up to 25 per cent of new cases are estimated to be from the South African or Brazilian variant. One in 20 new Covid-19 cases in France are estimated to be of these variants.

Both Dunkirk and Nice were caught off guard by the speed of the spread of the more contagious British variant, and experts say they offer a glimpse into the catastrophic scenario France could find itself in by springtime, raising questions over president Macron’s decision to avoid a lockdown last month. Initially, it seemed as though Mr Macron’s Covid-19 gamble had paid off. Daily infections were falling and the president was enjoying approval ratings significantly higher than those of his predecessors at similar stages in their presidency.

But modelling by France’s research body Institut Pasteur published on Wednesday showed that without new restrictions, hospital admissions would skyrocket from 1,300 to 10,000 per day by May. In January, 52 per cent of French people thought the government’s decision to avoid a lockdown was a mistake, according to a Harris Interactive poll. The scientific council advising the French government on public health strategy during the epidemic had recommended a strict lockdown in late January, but its report was not made public until last week.

Dinkirk’s first cases of the so-called Kent variant are believed to have reached the city through truck drivers coming from BritainCredit: PASCAL ROSSIGNOL /REUTERS

While Britain has provided a roadmap for the lifting of restrictions and a return to normality by the summer, France is likely to face a rise in Covid-19 infections and a lockdown, which has been demanded by several politicians and scientific experts.

Several mayors, including in the northern cities of Lille and Calais, have come out in favour of at least localised lockdowns to prevent already overwhelmed hospitals from reaching a breaking point. On Friday, the deputy mayor of Paris lashed out at “half-measures” such as the weekend lockdowns which were “highly restrictive” but would have “little impact on the health situation.” But Paris will aim to avoid a strict lockdown at all costs, Emmanuel Gregoire said. At its current speed, one of the slowest in Europe, France’s vaccination campaign will not provide much-needed respite quickly enough.

Only 4 per cent of French people have received a first dose of the vaccine so far, and 2 per cent a second. Opinion polls show about 58 percent of French citizens say they won’t take the jab, making it the most vaccine-averse country in the world. In the meantime, doctors in Dunkirk are trying to contain the epidemic in their city, which they have likened to “a tidal current” rather than a wave.

“We are clearly no longer on a wave, we are on what we can call a tidal current,” said Dr Christophe Couturier, the emergency director at the hospital.

Despite frontline health workers working overtime, if cases keep rising, he is concerned “the dam will break.”