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France to end coronavirus lockdown in stages

Masks, testing, isolation hotels among the strategies in place when France begins to ease Covid-19 lockdown

Facemasks, mass testing and isolation hotel rooms will all be part of France’s strategy to move forward when the eight-week Covid-19 lockdown starts to end on May 11.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told the French parliament: “We must learn to live with the virus and it is a risk which we must take seriously.”

He stressed caution as Covid-19, which had killed more than 24,000 people in hospitals and care homes in France by the end of April, is still circulating – and strongly in certain areas. Key points of the deconfinement are:

  • A national framework but adapted at local level with mayors and prefects.
  • Checks on May 7 on the virus’s spread in each department, with departments labelled green or red. Rules for deconfinement will be stricter in red areas.
  • An overall assessment on May 7; deconfinement will not start on May 11 if indicators are not as hoped, or stricter rules will be applied.
  • Two initial deconfinement stages with some services and facilities reopening on May 11, others on June 2.
  • No local travel limits but no travel allowed over 100km unless for urgent family reasons or for work.
  • No extra confinement time for the elderly. They can decide individually whether to continue isolation or not.
  • No plan to test everyone but wide-scale testing of those showing symptoms and potentially infected people.
  • Barrier gestures must be strictly maintained. “Herd immunity” is not an option, as only around 10% of the French population is estimated to have been infected by the virus.
  • Obligatory masks on public transport; recommended elsewhere. Masks widely available by May 11.
  • From May 11, businesses and shops can reopen, although home working is strongly advised for all who can.
  • Schools will also start to reopen from May 11, with a staggered return by age and with classes restricted to 15. Parents can decide if they wish to send children.
  • Restaurants and cafes must stay closed with an analysis made at the end of May to see if they can open in June. Cinemas and theatres closed until June 2. Religious services cannot be held again before June 2.
  • Self-isolation, either at home or in designated isolation hotels away from family, for the infected who do not need hospital care.

A massive package of aid has been put forward to keep businesses of all sizes afloat. More than half the country’s workers are on chômage partiel, an existing French mechanism under which workers remain employed, although unable to work, and the state funds 80%-plus of their salary.

The health crisis is improving “slowly but surely” due to respect for the lockdown rules, Mr Philippe said earlier, but the possibility of a second wave remains and a vaccine will not be ready until at least early next year.

Several points about the virus are still unknown, such as if you can catch it more than once, why men are affected more than women, and why children relatively rarely develop Covid-19.

The initial relaxation phase from May 11, which may not be at the same speed across France, will last until June 2 when rules may change again.

Individual walking, running and cycling will be allowed from May 11 without time or distance limits however in the first instance there will be no sport in covered areas, or collective or contact sports.

Parks will reopen in departments judged to be ‘green’ in a health improvement coding set at the beginning of May; beaches will be closed until at least June 1 as will salles des fêtes. Markets will run if councils think they are compatible with physical distancing and barrier gestures.

Crèches will open for groups of no more than 10. No changes as yet for larger numbers at funerals and weddings. Cemeteries will re-open.

Big festivals and sports events will not be possible until September and in general gatherings of more than 10 people will not be allowed. Many events have been cancelled. The Tour de France was delayed to August 20 - September 20, but is now in doubt.

There will be capacity from May 11 to test anyone with symptoms, and those not requiring hospitalisation will be asked to self-isolate.

Testing will also take place for those who have been in close and prolonged contact with someone infected with local task forces set up to contact people. A voluntary mobile phone app to warn people is also under review.

Aid to firms has been “prolonged and reinforced”. One-off aid is being given to low-income households.

Mr Philippe said some of the measures outlined would need legislation to make them applicable, such as limiting trips to less than 100kms from home. He also plans to ask for the Covid-19 State of Emergency to be extended by two months to July 23.

Confinement measures in France prevented almost 62,000 deaths from March 19 to April 19, according to researchers at the School of Advanced Studies in Public Health (EHESP), one of the grandes écoles.

A computer model simulated the spread of the virus within the French population over the course of a month if no action had been taken.

The figures though did not include care home deaths, which have been around a third of the total. They also do not account for extra deaths likely due to hospitals being overwhelmed.

Researchers said it shows it was right not to allow the virus to spread freely through the population in the hope of people acquiring immunity.
As of April 23, 915,000 fines for not following confinement rules had been issued following 16million attestation checks.

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