France will impose new coronavirus restrictions in 16 regions, including the greater Paris and Nice areas, the country’s prime minister announced Thursday in an attempt to contain a surge of Covid-19 sweeping the country.
Jean Castex said France recorded 35,000 new infections Thursday, a rise of 23.6% in the last week, and that the variant first identified in the UK accounts for three quarters of cases.
The French Prime Minister also said that one person is entering intensive care every four minutes with Covid-19 in the country. Even more worrying, he said, is that the people being hospitalized with the disease are younger and healthier compared to previous waves.
The new measures go into effect Friday at midnight and will last at least four weeks but are less restrictive than measures imposed in March and November of last year.
“Our choice, to be less restrictive on possibilities to leave one’s home, will need to go hand in hand with real caution,” Castex said. “This is clearly about allowing for people to be outside, but not to go to friends’ homes to have a party or meet with many people without social distancing or a face mask. We know that it is in that kind of situation that the virus prospers,” he added.
The new restrictions allow individuals to go outdoors to walk or exercise but they must have an approval “certificate,” and they cannot go further than 10km from their home or travel between regions without a valid reason.
However the night time curfew – currently in effect from 6 p.m. – will be moved to 7 p.m. on Friday.
Essential businesses will remain open as will schools and universities. But people are being encouraged to work from home.
“Our conviction is that if new measures are necessary, we need to keep the same coherence, and prefer a pragmatic, proportionate, territorialized approach,” Castex said, adding that the coronavirus pandemic is “accelerating considerably” and it was “becoming clearer and clearer that it’s a third wave.”
The French strategy spearheaded by President Emmanuel Macron – who is up for re-election next year – has so far consisted of resisting a third nationwide lockdown because of the impact it would have on mental health and the economy.
Macron has favored regional weekend lockdowns instead, such as in the north and the French Riviera, a nationwide curfew has been in place since mid-December and restaurants and bars have been closed for five months.
As neighboring countries have imposed stricter restrictions to fight the spread of new variants, Macron’s less severe approach has been met with support by some and incomprehension by others. With France passing the grim milestone of 90,000 dead, the stakes are high for Macron. Critics say he’s gambling with lives.
“Macron is hedging his bets and there are human lives at stake,” communist MP Fabien Roussel told France 5.
The 43-year-old has been accused of reverting to monarchical ways by going against the advice of his Scientific Council, resisting to pressure from his ministers and showing a reluctance to change course.
“When you’re French, you have everything you need to succeed providing you dare to try,” Macron is reported to have told ministers in January. “Even if the path is narrow, you have to take it.”
In February the government once again faced growing calls from members of the medical community to impose a national lockdown. French health minister Olivier Veran defended a decision to hold off.
“Every week without a lockdown is a week with additional freedoms for the French,” Veran told France Info.
But with France recording its highest daily rise of Covid-19 cases in four months on Wednesday with 38,501 new infections, according to the French health ministry, some disagree with the notion that every day without a lockdown counts as a win.
“We did not gain 15 days, we have lost 15 days and that’s allowed the situation to get worse,” Les Republicans mayor Daniel Fasquelle tweeted.
On Wednesday left-wing newspaper, Liberation, published a front page showing a mask-wearing Macron staring at the ground, “Covid: The Master Of Lost Time,” the headline read.
“The president is so afraid of losing next year’s election that his policies will end up increasing the risk of death in the French population,” epidemiologist Catherine Hill told CNN Thursday. But with the virus “everywhere,” Hill does not believe regional lockdowns are the answer.
This time last year France entered its first lockdown, which lasted three months, followed by a second lighter lockdown which began in October and ended in December.
France’s slow vaccine campaign has been widely criticized and the rollout is expected to be further hampered by the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine. It has partially vaccinated just 4.5% of its population, compared to 36% in the UK and 21% in the United States, according to our World in Data.
Despite the poor vaccine performance, Macron’s support has risen since the start of the year. His approval rating went up 6 percentage points to 41%, according to an Ipsos-Mori poll in March, way above his socialist predecessor Francois Hollande’s 16% in March 2016 and conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011 who stood at 31%.
CNN’s Antonella Francini contributed to this report.