French Prime Minister Jean Castex warned Friday the country was seeing a “clear worsening” of the coronavirus pandemic but said he would aim to avoid a new nationwide lockdown that would further hamper the economy.
Nearly 10,000 new cases were recorded on Thursday, a record since wide-scale testing began, but Castex said a recent increase in Covid-19 hospitalisations was particularly worrying.
“We have to succeed in living with this virus, without returning to the idea of a generalised lockdown,” he said in a televised statement from his official residence in Paris.
“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.
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.
– ‘Tough decisions’ –
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.