French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said a lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus has saved tens of thousands of lives but that it’s time to ease the restrictions to stave off economic collapse.
The death toll in France passed 23,000 on Monday, the world’s fourth highest behind the United States, Italy and Spain.
But the government is now looking to take advantage of falling infection rates to rescue a free-falling economy, though Philippe said the French people would have to adapt to a new way of living.
“We are going to have to learn to live with the virus,” Philippe told parliament on Tuesday as he began outlining measures to gradually ease the lockdown. “We must learn to live with COVID-19 and to protect ourselves from it.”
Philippe’s government faces a delicate balancing act, keen to relieve the mounting frustration of people holed up in their homes since mid-March without heightening the risk of a second wave of infections if France moves too swiftly.
France would begin emerging from the lockdown on May 11, unless it was unsafe to do so, Philippe said.
“If the indicators are not right, we will not unwind the lockdown on May 11, or we will do it more strictly,” he said.
By then, France would have the capacity to conduct 700,000 virological tests per week, the prime minister continued. The state would cover the full cost of testing.
Philippe said an important benchmark was to see the number of new cases of coronavirus infection drop below 3,000 per day.
The number of confirmed new cases dropped below 3,000 on April 15. In the past two weeks, the number of new cases per day was on average about 2,162 per day.
Work-at-home still encouraged where possible
The prime minister said if May 11 is workable, non-essential French retailers could reopen their doors on that date, but they they would have the right to insist that shoppers wear masks on the premises.
Philippe said services on the Paris metro would be increased to allow people to commute to work while observing physical distancing, and that restrictions would stay in place for long-distance train travel. Where possible, people should continue working from home beyond May 11, he said.
Gatherings of more than 10 people indoors or outdoors will remain banned and beaches will remain closed to the public at least until June 1.
Philippe promised that enough masks will be available for all citizens from May 11. His government is calling on all companies to provide workers with masks and will help small firms obtain them if needed.
Masks will also be for sale on the post office’s website.
Kindergartens and elementary schools will reopen nationwide on May 11 but on a voluntary basis. From May 18, the government will consider opening middle schools in districts where there are only weak outbreaks of the virus and will decide at the end of May if upper schools can be opened in early June.
Kindergarteners will not be allowed to wear masks to avoid misuse, and the government will make masks available for middle school students who are not able to get them themselves.
Class sizes will be kept to 15 students per class and distance learning will remain free for those students who stay home.
With the increase in testing, it is hoped that once a person has tested positive, authorities are able to identify and test all those, symptomatic or not, who have had close contact with the person.
Those who test positive will have to confine themselves for 14 days, either at home or in a place made available to them, in particular in requisitioned hotels. All these contact cases will be tested and will be asked to isolate themselves.
Fans of Ligue 1 soccer and other professional sports received some bad, though not entirely unexpected, news from Philippe.
“The 2019-2020 season of professional sports, especially that of football, will not be able to resume,” he said, indicating September was the earliest possible date.
There were about 10 matches left in France’s top soccer table, while its main rugby league was in playoff semifinals.
Philippe’s address was to be followed by a debate and vote in the evening, with just 75 of the National Assembly’s 577 lawmakers sitting in the chamber to respect physical distancing rules.