Paris: Schoolchildren in large parts of France were ordered on Monday to again wear face masks in class, less than a month after being allowed to remove them, as the country tries to tamp down a surge in Covid cases.
Primary schools in 40 of France’s 101 departments or administrative areas, which had been mask-free for weeks, are affected by the order, which comes a day before President Emmanuel Macron addresses the nation about the health crisis.
Under the government’s Covid protocol, primary school pupils have to wear masks when the incidence rate rises above 50 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants over five consecutive days.
With nearly 75 percent of the population inoculated against the coronavirus, France is one of Europe’s vaccine leaders. But the pace of new vaccinations has slowed since the summer, when millions rushed to get shots after the introduction of a Covid pass to enter bars, restaurants, gyms and other entertainment and sporting venues.
The latest government edict brings to 61 the number of departments where schoolchildren have to cover their noses and mouths. They include the areas surrounding Paris as well as the southern city of Marseille.
In secondary schools, masks remain compulsory irrespective of the number of Covid cases. On Tuesday evening, Macron will address the nation about the health crisis for the first time since July 12.
He is expected to discuss the booster shot campaign currently underway among over-65s and those with underlying health conditions. So far only half of those eligible for a top-up shot have received the jab.
Prime Minister Jean Castex told AFP on Friday that the government was considering updating the Covid pass to include a mandatory booster shot.
The World Health Organisation has expressed "grave concern" over soaring Covid cases in Europe, warning that the continent could see another half a million deaths by early next year. Germany last week set a new record for daily cases, with nearly 34,000 new cases over the previous 24 hours.
France, by comparison, has been spared a steep rise in infections, with health authorities reporting 8,547 new cases between Saturday and Sunday. In the absence of a fourth wave of infections, many parents and teachers have expressed dismay over the reimposed restrictions on younger children.
The secretary general of France’s biggest primary teachers union, the SNUIPP-FSU, warned that the "yo-yo effect" would have a detrimental effect on students. "This to-ing and fro-ing risks creating a sense of instability in schools," Guislaine David said.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told France Info radio that while the new mask mandate was "unpleasant" it was "necessary".Meanwhile, most of Russia on Monday ended a week-long paid holiday aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus, despite the country seeing thousands of new cases and more than 1,000 deaths per day.
President Vladimir Putin ordered the paid holiday period from October 30 to November 7 in a bid to stem soaring infections and deaths exacerbated by a slow vaccination drive.
Individual regions had the authority to extend the period but as of Monday only five had done so, including the western region of Bryansk and the northwestern region of Novgorod. A number of regions did however introduce or extend a requirement for proof of vaccination to visit restaurants, cafes and shopping centres. In the city of Veliky Novgorod where authorities extended the shutdown, some approved of the measure.
"That’s the right thing to do," Antonina Leontyeva, 75, told AFP. "Maybe there will be fewer patients and fewer infections in a week." But others said they were growing exasperated. "I do not like this, this makes me mad," said 19-year-old Alexander Vorotilov. "I cannot go anywhere without a QR-code."
Moscow, the epicentre of the pandemic in Russia, still does not require proof of vaccination for most public activities. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was too early to say whether the week-long shutdown would help reduce infections.
"This will only become clear in a week," he told reporters. With more than 8.8 million cases registered since the start of the pandemic, Russia is one of the worst-hit countries in the world and a devastating wave this autumn has seen infections and deaths reach new records.
Meantime, Australia's coronavirus death toll for 2021 has surpassed that of 2020 as the country continues to battle the third wave of infections. Australia on Monday morning reported more than 1,300 new locally-acquired Covid-19 cases and 12 deaths, taking the nation's pandemic death toll to 1827.
Of those, 918 have occurred in 2021 compared to 909 in 2020. New South Wales (NSW), Australia's most populous state with Sydney as the capital city, has accounted for 544 - or 59 percent - of Covid-19 deaths in 2021.
By comparison, more than 90 percent of Australia's coronavirus deaths in 2020 were in Victoria, the country's second-most populous state with Melbourne as the capital city. According to federal government data, 35 percent of Australians who died with Covid-19 were in their 80s, 23 percent in their 90s and 20 percent in their 70s.
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