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Why Emmanuel Macron is gambling on vaccine passports for France

The French president has announced new measures to boost the country’s vaccine take-up and slow the spread of the Delta variant.

By Ido Vock

For Emmanuel Macron, the end of summer is in sight. Having declared as recently as April that “vaccine passports will never be used to divide the French people”, in a 12 July televised address the French president announced a raft of measures that will shortly make life significantly more inconvenient for the unvaccinated. The measures are intended to boost France’s flagging vaccination take-up before the effects of the cooler weather in the autumn and the more transmissible Delta variant combine to create a fourth wave.

Passports proving vaccination status, a recent PCR test or that the holder has recovered from Covid-19 will be required for entry to cultural centres, concerts and festivals from 21 July. From August, they will be demanded of passengers on planes, trains and coaches, as well as in bars and restaurants and in retirement homes and hospitals. PCR tests, currently free, will cost about €49 from the autumn, meaning that those holding out on the vaccine will face prohibitively expensive bills to participate in cultural and social life.

On top of that, vaccination will be made mandatory for hospital workers and carers for the elderly on 15 September. Health Minister Olivier Véran warned workers in those sectors that if they remain unvaccinated by that date, “you will no longer be able to work and you will no longer be paid”.

The shift to coercive measures that render the unvaccinated less free is a departure from the initial strategy of France’s vaccination campaign, which focused on convincing, rather than forcing, the hesitant. But with 53 per cent of the population now having received at least one dose – a figure likely to rise rapidly following Macron’s announcement – the president is betting that coercion of the minority is a better solution than restrictions on the entire population if infection rates rise again.

With the economy almost completely open, scientists fear there could be 20,000 cases a day by August, up from around 4,000 at present. With cases having dropped precipitously since the third wave in the spring, and with businesses open, many have felt little urgency to get vaccinated. But there are only two months of warm weather remaining before the autumn, when a fourth wave among a significant minority of unvaccinated people would likely be enough to threaten the health system and require the return of lockdown measures. “If we do not act today, the number of cases will continue to rise rapidly,” Macron warned.

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Enforcement of the new measures is likely to be a challenge. The hospitality industry is nervous about the burden of checking their patrons’ vaccination status being placed on them under threat of fines or even closures when their businesses have already been battered by over a year of the pandemic. It may be possible for holdouts simply to present a valid QR code obtained from someone else’s app for verification as their own. The effectiveness of the coercive rules may be reduced by the socio-economic profile of those who remain unvaccinated, who are disproportionately on lower incomes and so less likely to use the hospitality services where they will apply. Nonetheless, the rules are likely to boost take-up of the vaccine significantly in the coming months.

During the same address, Macron also pleaded for the economic reforms for which he was elected to continue, most controversially changes to France’s byzantine pensions system. “Because we are living longer, it will be necessary to work more and retire later,” he argued. However, Macron conceded that reforms, which are certain to be contested by the opposition, would be kept on hold until the pandemic recedes. Changes to unemployment benefits will, however, be implemented in October, having been delayed by the pandemic.

Macron is laying the groundwork for the next presidential election in April 2022. By next spring, he hopes to be able to point to the success of coercive methods in avoiding the worst of a Delta-driven fourth wave in the autumn and in not requiring the government to impose restrictions on the entire population, including the vaccinated majority.

The two pillars of the address – coercive measures to boost vaccination before the autumn and a commitment to continued economic liberalisation – are interlocking arguments. According to Macron, in the short term, vaccination is the only way out of the pandemic and towards economic recovery. But in the longer term, that recovery will only be sustained with the liberalising reforms he was elected to pursue in 2017.