by Adam PLOWRIGHT / Laurence BENHAMOU and Adam PLOWRIGHT / AFP
PARIS – The French capital braced for new restrictions on Thursday after a surge in Covid-19 infections that has overwhelmed hospitals and forced the government to consider a much-resisted new lockdown.
Prime Minister Jean Castex is to speak on Thursday evening to announce the new measures, which could include a stay-at-home order over the weekend for the 12 million people in the Paris region.
President Emmanuel Macron has argued against a third national shutdown, preferring instead to enforce local restrictions to try to slow the spread of the more contagious British variant.
“Let’s be clear, we’re in a third wave mostly down to the rise of this famous British variant,” Macron said late Wednesday after a day of talks with medical staff and local mayors in the Paris region. “The situation is critical. It’s going to be very hard until mid-April.”
The other two Covid-19 hotspots in France — around the southern Mediterranean town of Nice, and the northern region surrounding Calais — have been under weekend lockdowns since late February and early March respectively.
Castex, who will speak at 7:00 pm (1800 GMT), said Tuesday that the same restrictions were “on the table” for Paris.
But confining people to their homes in Paris, the economic and political heartland of the country which is renowned for its dense housing, has sparked worries of more psychological problems and even violence.
“Confining the region is not an easy decision. It has major consequences for residents,” an unnamed minister told the Parisien newspaper.
The handling of the health crisis also has consequences for Macron, just over 12 months from presidential elections and with opponents slamming his record.
The 43-year-old head of state resisted pressure to order a third national lockdown at the end of January as most of France’s neighbours including Britain and Germany shut schools and closed down.
Macron argued that the situation was stable in France, which was already under a 6:00 pm curfew and with strict mask-wearing rules in places, and that a lockdown would wreak unnecessary economic and social damage.
Daily infections stayed constant at around 20,000 a day for February, but new cases have risen 20 percent in the last week alone at a national level.
On Thursday, around 38,000 new infections were reported, the highest level in four months, and saturated Paris hospitals are transferring patients to other regions.
“When you hit the emergency brake, with a weekend lockdown for example, it’s because you’ve failed with all the rest,” Bruno Retailleau, a senior figure in the right-wing opposition Republicans party, told France Inter radio, referring to Macron’s strategy.
As well as registering soaring cases, France has made a sluggish start to its vaccination campaign and suspended use of the AstraZeneca-Oxford jab this week in line with many European partners.
Almost exactly a year ago, Macron ordered France’s first national lockdown which was among the strictest in the world, followed by a second at the end of October.
More than 91,000 people have died in France from the disease, according to an official count.