France plots gradual exit from lockdown from May 11, but cafes to stay closed

PARIS (Reuters) – France will begin to ease its coronavirus lockdown from May 11 to avoid an economic meltdown, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Tuesday, but he warned that infections would spiral higher again if the country moved too swiftly.

Schools will gradually reopen and businesses will be free to resume operations, Philippe said in an address to parliament.

However, restaurants and cafes will remain closed until at least early June and professional sports, including soccer, will not begin again until the autumn.

“We must protect the French people without paralysing France to the point that it collapses,” Philippe said. “A little too much carefreeness and the epidemic takes off again. Too much prudence and the whole country buckles.”

More than 23,000 people have died in the pandemic in France, the world’s fourth highest toll behind the United States, Italy and Spain. But the lockdown had saved tens of thousands of lives, the prime minister said.

The numbers in hospital in France with COVID-19, the highly contagious lung disease caused by the new coronavirus, have fallen daily for two weeks, while the number of sufferers in intensive care has declined for 19 consecutive days.

The easing would be underpinned by an aggressive testing and isolation programme, Philippe said.

The government was prepared to slow or delay the unwinding if the infection rate rose markedly higher, he said, with administrative departments divided into ‘red’ and ‘green’ zones.

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The government will take advantage of the slowing spread of the virus 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,” he said. “We must learn to live with COVID-19 and to protect ourselves from it.”

TEST, ISOLATE

France’s blueprint for easing the lockdown reflects a balancing act, with the government 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.

France will implement a new doctrine on COVID-19 testing from May 11 with the aim of testing everyone who has come into contact with infected people, Philippe said. It targetted a testing capacity of 700,000 per week.

“Once a person has tested positive, we will begin to identify and test all those, symptomatic or not, who have had close contact with them. All these contact cases will be tested and will be asked to isolate themselves,” Philippe said.

He said primary schools nationwide can reopen from May 11, and high schools from May 18 in areas were the infection rate is weak. Lessons would only resume if there were no more than 15 students in the classroom at any one time and secondary school pupils will have to wear masks.

Companies should consider remote-working for at least a week after May 11 and anyone travelling on public transport or in a taxi would also have to wear a mask.

The ban on professional sports upends the 2019-2020 Ligue 1 season and impacts the already-delayed Tour de France, which had been postponed until August.

A vote will be held on the government’s proposed measures after a two-and-a-half hour debate, with just 75 of the National Assembly’s 577 parliamentarians sitting in the chamber to respect social distancing rules.

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