French Prime Minister Jean Castex warned today the country is seeing a ‘clear worsening’ of its coronavirus outbreak.
Nearly 10,000 new cases were recorded yesterday, a record since wide-scale testing began, but Castex said a recent increase in Covid-19 hospitalisations was particularly worrying.
Despite the surge in cases, Castex said he would aim to avoid a new nationwide lockdown that would further hammer the economy.
From his residence in Paris in a televised statement, Castex said there is a ‘clear worsening’ in France of the spread of Covid-19 which has ‘not lowered in intensity’ and ‘will still be with us for some months.’
‘We have to succeed in living with this virus, without returning to the idea of a generalised lockdown,’ Castex said.
‘Our strategy is not changing. We must fight the virus without putting on hold our social, cultural and economic life, the education of our children and our ability to live normally,’ he added.
Medical staff with protective gear conduct tests for Covid-19, today in Venissieux, near Lyon, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic
This image of a television screen shows French Prime Minister Jean Castex as he speaks on the coronavirus situation during a press conference at The Hotel Matignon in Paris today
Castex said 42 of France’s 101 departments are now classified as ‘red zones’ where the virus is circulating rapidly, up from 28 earlier this week.
‘There is no Maginot Line – inevitably it ends up reaching the most vulnerable,’ he said, referring to the supposedly unbreakable defences France built ahead of World War II.
But he did not announce any major new restrictions, urging people instead to respect social distancing guidelines and the use of face masks.
And the quarantine period for people who catch the virus will be shortened to just seven days from 14, to better match ‘the period when there is a real risk of contagion,’ he said.
The move is a tacit acknowledgement that enforcing quarantines has proven nearly impossible given the number of new cases.
Castex also said testing capacities would be ramped up in response to long wait times for appointments and results.
Priority cases involving people with confirmed exposure to Covid-19 patients or already showing symptoms will be given reserved spots at testing centres, and 2,000 more people will be hired to carry out contact tracing.
Officials have been increasingly concerned about the high number of infections in France, even if the death toll and admissions to intensive care are way below the highs recorded in March and April.
The health ministry said 9,843 new coronavirus infections were recorded on Thursday, the highest number since large-scale testing began.
France’s total death toll from the pandemic now stands at 30,813.
The head of the scientific council advising the government on the pandemic, Jean-Francois Delfraissy, said Wednesday that the government may soon have to make ‘tough’ decisions to slow the outbreak.
People at high risk because of old age or health problems including diabetes, obesity and respiratory issues may require a protective ‘bubble’ around them, for example.
There was the danger of a ‘very rapid, exponential rise’ in some places, Delfraissy said, singling out the French Riviera and Provence regions.
Castex himself is in a seven-day period of self-isolation, having spent part of last weekend with the boss of the Tour de France Christian Prudhomme, who tested positive for Covid-19. Castex was later deemed virus-free after an initial test.
The French government announced yesterday it will pay parents to stay home if schools are forced to lock down due to a surge in coronavirus cases.
Paris revealed it will pay 84 per cent of the wages of one parent in each household with a child under the age of 16 if their school is forced to close down due to the virus.
French President Emmanuel Macron flanked by Bonifacio Mayor Jean Charles Orsucci visits Bonifacio, on the Mediterranean Island of Corsica, France today. President Macron today said he hopes new measures will not be too restrictive
The announcement comes after infection clusters emerged across the country since schools were reopened on September 1. The clusters have already lead to the closure of 34 schools and the cancellation of 500 separate classes.
Payments will be backdated to 1 September, The Times reports, adding that the French government has also announced an extension of their furlough scheme for struggling businesses.
Since the beginning of the month, new cases have gone up by 7,292 each day on average, a figure that blows away the previous record daily average of 3,003 seen in August.
After reaching a low of 4,530 on 28 August, the number of people hospitalised with COVID-19 is again trending upward, with an increase of 93 over the last 24 hours to 5,096, the highest total in more than a month.
However, hospitalisations for the disease are still more than six times below the April 14 peak of 32,292 and the number of patients in ICUs is far below the April 8 record of 7,148.
The rise in infections has mainly affected young people who are less likely to develop complications from the virus. There has so far been less strain on French hospitals, which were almost overwhelmed at the end of March.
The number of hospitalisations have now shot up for 12 days in a row. The number of patients in intensive care units stands at 615, a level unseen since the end of June.
Hospital figures are still very far from peaks reached in April but create renewed strain on the hospital system that might lead authorities to take action.
France’s decision to put the country under one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns between March 17 and May 11 was dictated by the need to keep the hospital system from being overwhelmed.
President Emmanuel Macron said yesterday he hoped any new measures would not be too restrictive.
‘What we need to do is to adapt to the evolution of the virus and try to slow its circulation with hygiene measures and adapting our social lives’, he said during a visit to Corsica yesterday.
‘We need to be able to continue to live, educate our children and care for other patients and illnesses and to have a social and economic life.’
According to The Times, Macron added that lockdown measures would be implemented on a regional basis, not national.
France has the seventh-highest COVID-19 death toll in the world.