Currently, the virus is contained in “clusters” in Morbihan (Brittany) and the Oise (Hauts-de-France), and is described as in “stage two” of three. Three people have died so far, and 191 cases have been confirmed.
Health minister Oliver Véran has said that the country is “anticipating the possibility of an epidemic”, but reiterated that “we are not in an epidemic [now], but we are facing the approaching threat of an epidemic”.
Government spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye this week said that moving to stage three appeared increasingly likely and inevitable.
She said: “The day that the virus, unfortunately, is circulating across the entire country, we will be in an ‘entire’ epidemic stage... I am afraid that it will be difficult to escape this ‘epidemic stage’.”
Ms Ndiaye added: “Up until several days ago, we said that everyone [with the virus] had to go to hospital, because our objective was to slow the spread of the virus.
“[But] as soon as the virus is circulating, we will say that only seriously-ill patients should go to hospital, and more mild cases should stay at home.”
Mr Véran has said: “All the decisions that I am making [with regards to coronavirus] are based on scientific rationale, proven by experts. There are white coats behind every decision.”
In the case of an epidemic, certain measures are likely to be put in place across the country. The government is likely to follow an epidemic plan that was first laid out during the H1N1 ‘flu of 2009.
In a statement, national health director Jérôme Salomon said: “The key measures [of this plan] will be used in response to an epidemic of coronavirus, adapted to individual cases.”
Certain public transport services will be suspended. The public will be advised to avoid all non-essential journeys. Restrictions could apply geographically, or limit the number of services, especially in busy areas, junior transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari has said.
The public has already been warned to avoid all “foreign travel, as much as possible”.
But transport minister Elisabeth Borne said that while “different scenarios are envisaged”, “there would be no question of stopping the trains” in the case of an epidemic. She said: “This is not about stopping the country [from operating].”
All health care and patient care centres would be involved in the fight against the virus, especially when it comes to protecting vulnerable patients.
The main priority would be to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system, and ensure that the most urgent patients are seen first. Mild cases would not be treated in hospital.
Emergency response service the SAMU would receive a boost in capacity, as it is expected that their call numbers would increase by 200% during an epidemic stage.
The State would also look to distribute free health products designed to limit the virus from spreading.
Mr Véran has already announced that “a reserve of €260 million” from the 2019 budget is to be released to help French hospitals.
Currently, all pupils have been authorised to return to school, even if they have been on holiday to northern Italy - a major outbreak centre.
Any pupil who has travelled to Hubei province in China - the source of the outbreak - is still subject to restrictive measures. All foreign school trips have been cancelled.
Should the country pass into stage three, schools and education centres may be asked to close.
In the case of an epidemic, the government would request that protection measures be put in place, including allowing staff to work from home, and avoid meetings and unnecessary travel.
Sports and cultural venues
An epidemic would “severely impact group activities”, the government has said. A ban could be placed on events such as shows, sports matches, festivals and salons, and other large gatherings.
France has already banned gatherings of more than 5,000 people in a confined space, which could “affect hundreds of halls and thousands of cultural events”, performance union Prodiss has warned.
Already, the Louvre museum has closed until further notice, and the country’s largest literary festival, le Salon Livre Paris, has been cancelled.
Resources could be pooled to ensure that priorities are met. The national police and gendarmerie could receive a boost in personnel to ensure numbers, and local associations and relevant individuals - including students and newly-retired people - could be called on to volunteer.
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