France may extend lockdown as many flout the rules

Paris (AFP) –


France's two-week lockdown to try to stem the coronavirus is likely to be extended, officials said on Thursday, as the interior minister blasted "idiots" who are flouting the home confinement rules.

President Emmanuel Macron ordered French residents to stay at home from Tuesday except for essential excursions such as going to the doctor, walking the dog, or going for a solitary run, and banned any gatherings.

People can go to work only if homeworking is not possible.

But news reports have shown groups of people strolling in parks and the one-metre (three feet) safe inter-personal distance has been frequently ignored.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner accused people of underestimating the risk, telling Europe 1 radio: "There are people who think they are modern-day heroes by breaking the rules while they are in fact idiots."

Some officials have called for even stricter limits and Paris police are mulling closing riverside walkways -- a move already enforced in Bordeaux.

Macron on Thursday urged companies and workers to continue their activities "in compliance with the health safety rules".

Genevieve Chene, who heads France's public health agency, said two to four weeks of confinement are needed for the outbreak to be adequately contained.

"It is likely that it is indeed necessary to extend (the containment measures) in order for the braking to be sufficient," Chene said.

The timing will depend largely on how closely people conform with the confinement measures, she said, adding that France's peak was likely to be around the middle or end of May.

Beaches and hiking trails along the Atlantic coast in the Morbihan region of Brittany were closed Thursday because of "significant number of people along the coast... which risks spreading the virus", the top government official for the region said.

Access to the entire Mediterranean coast was also closed because "We are seeing too many people on the beaches", regional prefect Pierre Dartout told AFP.

And in Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo and police chief Didier Lallement issued a "solemn appeal" for people to limit their outings to "the strict minimum".

The Sacre-Coeur basilica overlooking the capital was also closed for the first time since it was built in 1914.

- 'Despicable' -

Castaner said people who left their homes without an important reason were "putting themselves at risk, their families and their loved ones, but also the health workers who will be there, even if they behaved foolishly... to treat them, to save them".

The minister also railed against thefts of surgical masks from hospitals and said the authorities would deal harshly with anyone found to be involved in the "despicable" illegal trade of such protective equipment.

He warned anyone selling fake authorisation certificates, which people now need to carry every time they leave the house, face up to a year in prison and a fine of 15,000 euros.

Meanwhile, the French government has started requisitioning hotel rooms for homeless people to occupy during the confinement period, Housing Minister Julien Denormandie announced.

More than 170 rooms will be made available in Paris by the end of the week and the government has identified 80 sites elsewhere for an estimated 250,000 homeless.

Some 50 million euros has been set aside for the project.