COVID-19: Minister hails "pragmatic and safe solution"

European affairs – COVD-19/United Kingdom/Brexit/European Union – Interview given by M. Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to BFM TV

Paris, 23 December 2020

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THE MINISTER – On the situation with the United Kingdom, on Sunday we adopted an emergency and precautionary measure, which was severe but necessary for health protection, given the alerts we received over the weekend from the British authorities. And on Sunday evening we said, particularly for our nationals, that we were searching for a solution and encouraging them to carry out PCR tests, because those are the most comprehensive ones.

And yesterday evening, after discussions with our European partners, after talks with the British authorities, we announced a pragmatic and safe solution for our nationals in particular. If you’re a French national, a European national in the UK or a permanent British resident in France, you can return on the strict condition that prior to embarkation you present a negative test taken under 72 hours earlier – a PCR test or, to facilitate things, an antigen test, because it’s quicker, less costly, and we’ve even very specifically created a list on the Internet showing the full list of antigen tests that are recognized and sensitive to the new version of the virus.

Q. – Does this mean you believe the situation is, from a health viewpoint, sufficiently under control to authorize these returns with a test, even though, as we know, the tests aren’t always reliable, particularly the antigen tests?

THE MINISTER – Well, we’re being very cautious. The principle remains that you mustn’t travel. So it’s not an encouragement to come for just any reason. But this is a festive period, we have our nationals: we always seek solutions for our nationals, that’s our responsibility. So it’s very regulated. But we believe it’s sufficiently safe and reliable to have a PCR test under 72 hours old or, you’re right, antigen tests are sometimes a bit less sensitive, a bit less reliable – that’s why we have a very specific list [of tests] which we know are sensitive to variants of the virus, which we defined yesterday with our Health Ministry and which is specified on the Internet for everyone who wants to take them.

I also want to say that France carried out this European coordination. We’re not the only ones with these few limited flexibilities. But we also have a special role, because movement, particularly of goods between France and the UK, is movement for the whole of Europe. We’re the hub, as it were, the platform, the central node of the relationship between the UK and Europe – through the Channel Tunnel, through the arrival of goods. So we also had to oversee things, but leave this specific crossing that was safe and regulated in health terms.

Q. – Just on the PCR tests: indeed, you emphasized the cost, in some cases up to €200. Well, when it’s a family… that’s huge!

THE MINISTER – Of course. I want to say that in France the tests are free – which also carries a cost for our compatriots – and that the Government is legitimately making efforts to facilitate these tests. And that’s not the case for everyone, including in the United Kingdom. It’s costly and it’s sometimes lengthy. That’s why we said on Sunday evening, “if you can do it, do it”. And the antigen tests are often a lot faster, more easily available, and less costly. So that’s also one of the reasons why, given that they’re reliable for the variant of the virus, we authorized them.

Q. – Will there be enough trains, enough planes, enough boats to repatriate everyone who wants to be? Because you’re asking for a special effort from Eurostar, for example…

THE MINISTER – I talked to the Minister [Delegate] for Transport, M. Djebbari, again yesterday. We’ll adapt the provision as much as possible to the necessary traffic. For the time being, what we’ve seen instead is that in recent days the traffic on trains and planes has been quite low. There will probably be a slight increase linked to the festive period. But we’ll adapt the provision as much as possible together with the operators, of course, so that it goes ahead smoothly.

Q. – Earlier you mentioned the lorries everyone’s talking about – we’ve seen those endless queues in southern England, those lorries waiting to cross the Channel. So can they do so, also using the same method?

THE MINISTER – Using the same method. That’s why we took a few hours longer, because it’s not about laying down a principle, things have to work in real life, so together with the British Transport Secretary, the British Government, we identified places where lorry drivers, before crossing to the other side, before embarking, particularly via the Tunnel, will be able to have quick antigen tests. That’s being organized with the British authorities, because you’ve got to have significant places to organize all that. We’ve seen queues of lorries – you showed it in the picture, it’s very striking. It’s not a political decision, we took a health decision. But I really want to say to all those who explain to us that the only response to everything is always to close borders permanently, definitively, that it’s not as simple as that: on the contrary. And it sometimes penalizes our factories – as we saw with Toyota – and our economy. So we’re going to find solutions that are safe in health terms, with these tests carried out before embarkation.

Q. – Is there a risk of shortages? Because, well, we can clearly see not all those lorries are going to be able to return as quickly as planned.

THE MINISTER – No, there’s no risk shortages for France or for us – none. There are difficulties for some businesses, for fresh or very fresh produce. It’s been difficult because produce has been lost, there’s a wait of a few days, we can clearly see things move quite fast. That’s also one of the reasons why we wanted to authorize these crossings again, through a highly-regulated health protocol, but no, let’s not frighten people, there’s no risk of shortages. It penalizes the British much more, who have accumulated stocks in recent weeks in the run-up to Brexit, as we’ve seen.

Q. – One last word on the UK: you’ve taken a decision which is still temporary?

THE MINISTER – Yes, until 6 January.

Q. – Until 6 January? Is that because after 6 January the situation ma change again depending on the spread of the epidemic in the UK?

THE MINISTER – Exactly. We must constantly adapt to the health information. So like Germany, we’ve taken a measure until 6 January and we’ll adapt the arrangements in the very first days of 2021 if need be.

Q. – A question now on the vaccine and European cooperation because, as we know, the 27 members of the European Union are going to launch this vaccination campaign at the same time. Can you also confirm this morning that it won’t be 27 [December] for some and 28 for others?

THE MINISTER – We’ve given a launch window because countries can organize themselves a bit differently. There are some countries where Sunday is a day for visits etc., to nursing homes or old people’s homes, so everyone can be slightly flexible. But we have a three-day window - I think, after all, it’s well coordinated – during which Europeans together will launch the vaccination period. The first phase – and in most of the countries it’ll be Sunday: the Health Minister said so for France, and that will also be the case for Germany. It’s honestly a real European success: we’re buying more cheaply. We were talking about the UK; in the UK the doses being purchased are up to 1.5 times, two times higher, more costly, than in France, thanks to the European purchase we made together. So I also want to emphasize this aspect: we’re better protected, at a lower cost, and with coordinated vaccination in Europe.

Q. – Look at the pictures, live from Belgium, where lorries are clustering around a factory to pick up the first vaccines and take them to France, among other places.

THE MINISTER – Absolutely. It’s a factory in Belgium that is producing the first vaccine, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. I stress that it’s also this factory that produces the vaccines that were delivered to the UK a few days ago. So you see, again, that the European dimension is strong and we can’t cut ourselves off from one another. Those lorries are going to bring the first doses to France in the next few hours.

Q. – What we’ve managed to do on the vaccine – European cooperation – we can’t manage to do on the closure of borders with the UK, where everyone’s gone off in every direction, in a way. Is it more complicated?

THE MINISTER – I’m happy for people to criticize, but look honestly at what happened on Sunday. The French President spoke to Chancellor Merkel on Sunday morning and 18 European countries took a measure closing [their borders] in the course of Sunday. We didn’t hang around, we coordinated, we did the same thing, more or less, but broadly speaking we honestly did the same thing, and today we’re in the process of coordinating so that the test protocols etc… are the same between the UK and the other European countries. It’s not all perfect, but when you see the vaccine, when you see those measures, to be honest, Health Europe has really taken giant steps in the space of a few weeks./.

Published on 24/12/2020

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