The President of the Republic spoke bluntly. 'Get vaccinated to live normally,' Emmanuel Macron told his people. Europe's toughest vaccination passport programme was about to get tougher.
The 27-minute broadcast from the Élysée Palace, Macron's ninth since the onset of the Covid pandemic, sounded as usual like a popular family solicitor imparting bad news with regretful directness. He has used this tone to impose an increasingly coercive approach to vaccination that was initially furiously opposed, but is now much less so. He was about to make it more coercive still.
Already you need a vaccination certificate (passe sanitaire) to eat inside or outside a restaurant, drink inside or outside a café, work in the health sector or public services, attend a concert, movie or play, visit a nightclub or a sports occasion, catch an aeroplane or an intercity train, or shop in a major mall. The certificate proves that you have received both doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, or are protected from Covid by other means. A standing mistrust of vaccination in France, and a deeper disdain for compulsion, have provoked noisy protests from those who value their liberty above public safety. But 75% of the population now carries a passe, a higher percentage than in any other European country, delivering the highest protection rates in the world.
There are two reasons for this trend to acquiescence. First, Macron's Government has made so many activities contingent on presenting a passe that those who continue to refuse vaccination are in effect consigning themselves to lockdown. Second, it has worked. There was no post-holiday surge this autumn in France. A couple of weeks back, when the UK was looking at 40,000 new cases a day, France (with a similar population) was registering 1,000-1,500. You need to get vaccinated, as the man said, to live normally. And people feel safer for doing so.
But now the daily infection rate was again on the up, not just in France but across Europe. In the week preceding Macron's broadcast, it had risen in France by more than 20%, albeit from a low base, to stand at more than 7,000. In Germany, the rate was approaching 50,000. Austria was preparing to lockdown the non-vaccinated. The Dutch were headed for a partial national lockdown.
France had anticipated this so-called fifth wave by offering boosters – the third vaccination – to over-65s and people with particular health vulnerabilities. But take-up was sluggish, possibly reflecting confusion over the optimum time lapse between second and third jags. Only a third of those eligible had booked appointments by the time Macron decided to light a sizeable squib under the elderly: get your booster promptly, or say adieu to your passe.
From December 15, people in the eligible group will need to show the third jag on their passe, or the passe will become invalid. No third jag will be tantamount to no jag at all, in terms of 'living normally'. Moreover, the 50-65 age group are being encouraged to book boosters from the beginning of December, with a clear implication that they too will find their passes invalidated if they don't arrange the jag within a fairly tight timescale. Macron also announced a stepping up of checks on passes and mask-wearing in enclosed public spaces, where a certain laxity has inevitably become evident. All current Covid restrictions continue, until further notice.
As previously, there were reports that Macron's speech had prompted a sudden deluge of bookings, up 61% on the previous week. That said, I had no trouble booking a booster appointment for 1 December on the morning after the broadcast (I fall just short of the upper age threshold, but qualify under the specified health issues). Perhaps the middle-aged are waiting for more details of their programme to be published at the turn of the month.
But let's not miss the bigger point, which is that Macron is confident enough of compliance to announce this serious increase in coercion, and in the run-up to Christmas too. France doesn't submerge itself in the paralytic six-week tat-fest that is a British Christmas, but it does treat the festival as a time for families to come together and enjoy one another's company. Any ruling that casts doubt on travel plans for the holiday runs a big risk with public opinion, particularly after two successive festive seasons that were disrupted by the pandemic and particularly with a Presidential election just five months away.
Others, let's not forget, have caa'ed a great deal cannier. On the day Macron spoke, the Holyrood Parliament was getting all a-quiver up over a suggestion from John Swinney that there might – only might – be a case for extending vaccine passport use beyond the minimal range of entertainment and leisure venues currently covered. This is a sufficiently moderate idea for the Welsh Senedd to have already approved it. But opposition parties at Holyrood fell over each other, familiarly, to denounce the proposition as an intolerable burden on business. It would appear that Scottish productivity (unlike, say, French, or Welsh) is too fragile to withstand any new measure that doesn't emanate from the remuneration committee. England has foresworn vaccine passports altogether.
Macron clearly calculates that toughness, underscored by candid explanation, will continue to command confidence in his handling of Covid among mainstream opinion, as it has since the pandemic began. Indeed, though he has yet formally to announce his candidacy for a second term as President, he devoted the latter part of his broadcast to setting out what sounded a lot like his stall for the election. There was more tough talk: a controversial tightening up of unemployment benefits next month would not, as some had hoped, be shelved; and France would resume construction of nuclear power stations for the first time in decades.
But there were softer notes too: France's generous loan scheme to small businesses hit by the pandemic would be extended to next June, and – most significantly of all – the pension reforms that provoked such an upswell of protest before Covid forced their suspension would be brought back… after next spring's elections.
This was a bullish Macron, bolstered no doubt by a steady lead in the polls, and by the failure of any of his likely opponents yet to achieve any sort of momentum. The one exception, far-right media blowhard Éric Zemmour, who has also yet to confirm his candidacy, would more likely help than hurt Macron by taking votes from Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National.
Macron's message was three-fold, and coherent: he did not underestimate the dangers of the fifth wave, but had shown that France had a strategy to combat the threat, and the will to enforce it. An aggressive vaccination passport regime, even if it could not guarantee protection, had been proved to slow the spread, and with minimal damage to the economy or, for those who comply, minimal incursion on normal life – not even tiresome chores like regular testing endured elsewhere.
In a contribution to the Holyrood debate that one hopes sounded less obtuse than it reads, the Lib Dems' Alex Cole-Hamilton announced that there was 'no evidence base' for vaccine passports. 'They will not save Christmas,' he said. No, just lives.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster