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AFP
January 15, 2021

France braces for new Covid curbs but set to avoid lockdown

World

AFP
January 15, 2021

PARIS: The French government is expected on Thursday to announce new restrictions to stave off a rise in coronavirus cases but unlike some of its neighbours a full lockdown appears off the agenda for now.

Among the measures floated to try to avert a much-feared third wave of infections include expanding a 6:00 pm curfew in place in parts of the east to the whole country. Most of France is still subject to an 8:00 pm curfew imposed in mid-December when a second national lockdown was lifted.

Bringing it forward by two hours would stall the "apero effect", said the leader of President Emmanuel Macron’s Republic on the Move party, Stanislas Guerini, referring to the French tradition of meeting up for a pre-dinner aperitif.

France on Wednesday recorded around 23,000 new cases of Covid-19, around half the number detected in Britain on the same day but still far above the 5,000 figure the government had been aiming for by mid-December.

France is warily eyeing the spread across its territory of a new variant of the virus discovered in Britain, which is believed to be highly contagious.

On Thursday, Health Minister Olivier Veran announced plans for mass testing of schoolchildren and teachers following preliminary findings that the new variant spreads more easily among children than previous strains.

"We have established a protocol that aims to test up to a million children and teachers per month," he said, adding that children as young as six could be tested. Veran said that, unlike Britain, France had no plans to close schools "at this stage" but said the government might reconsider if the share of infections caused by the mutated strain grew.

On Tuesday, he told a Senate commission that the new variant accounted for about 1 percent of infections. Speculation had been swirling that France was preparing to follow the example of Austria, Britain, Israel and Portugal among other countries in imposing a third nationwide lockdown.

But several government sources told AFP there were no such plans afoot for now. The president of the scientific council set up to advise the government on the pandemic, Jean-Francois Delfraissy, said France was "in a sort of race" to get the most vulnerable citizens vaccinated before the new variant made further inroads.

After an excruciatingly slow start to the vaccination drive in late December, for which Macron’s government drew widespread condemnation, the pace of inoculations has picked up. So far 247,000 people have received the first jab, a number set to rise sharply in the coming days as the vaccines are rolled out to all people aged over 75 starting on Monday.

Until now, the campaign was focused on people in care homes as well as healthworkers, firefighters and domestic workers aged over 50. The government had rejected accusations of being a vaccine laggard, saying high levels of resistance to the jabs in France required a cautious approach.

Speaking during a visit to a vaccination centre in the northeastern city of Metz on Thursday, Prime Minister Jean Castex noted with satisfaction that vaccine scepticism was starting to decline.

He predicted a "stampede" for the injections among over-75s. "Things are falling into place but people will have to be patient," he said.Meanwhile, a full lockdown started in Lebanon on Thursday, with residents barred even from grocery shopping and dependent on food deliveries, in a bid to slow a surge in novel coronavirus cases.The new restrictions were only loosely respected in some areas of the country, however, after mass protests in recent years against a political elite held responsible for a deepening economic crisis. The lockdown, ordered after some hospitals started to run out of intensive care beds, includes a 24-hour curfew until January 25. Non-essential workers are barred from leaving their homes, and supermarkets are supposed to operate delivery services only.

Those wishing to request an emergency exemption -- to see a doctor for example -- can do so by sending a mobile phone text message or by filling in a form online. In the capital, roads were quieter than usual, while non-essential shops remained shuttered. Security forces stopped drivers at several checkpoints in the centre of the city.

Security forces said compliance with the new measures stood at 94 percent. But in some areas, some people ventured out to buy groceries from local shops. Recent days have seen Lebanon register record daily Covid-19 caseloads in one of the steepest increases in transmission worldwide.

In Geitawi Hospital in Beirut on Thursday, director Pierre Yared said the emergencies department was brimming with more than 30 people suffering from Covid-19 the previous day. "The ER was filled with corona patients, there were no other patients," he said.

Firass Abiad, the director of the main state hospital treating Covid patients, warned the lockdown must not fail. "In the last 24 hours alone, four Covid positive patients presented in cardiac arrest to our emergency room," he wrote on Twitter. "One of them was a 19 years old patient. This is serious."

The strict lockdown -- complete with the ban on grocery shopping -- came into effect after caretaker health minister Hamad Hasan was admitted to hospital with Covid-19 late on Wednesday, state media said. Its announcement on Monday raised fears of food shortages in impoverished and remote regions where deliveries are not readily available.

For several days, Lebanese have flooded supermarkets and chemists in a desperate bid to stock up. Some are worried the new restrictions will pile additional suffering on the country’s poorest.

Lebanon, a country of more than six million, was already grappling with its worst economic downturn in decades when the pandemic hit. Previous lockdowns have forced businesses to close and deprived some -- including many who earned money casually from day to day -- of an income in a country where around half the population lives in poverty.