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‘We have to live with the virus,’ says France's PM detailing plan to ease lockdown

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe unveils his blueprint for the country's exit from lockdown in an address to the National Assembly on Tuesday, April 28.
French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe unveils his blueprint for the country's exit from lockdown in an address to the National Assembly on Tuesday, April 28. © David Nivière, AFP

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe revealed his government’s much-awaited plan to ease the strict nationwide coronavirus lockdown on May 11 to the National Assembly  on Tuesday, including how many tests for the virus they hope will be carried out per week.

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MPs passed Philippe's plan on Tuesday by 368 votes, compared to 100 against.

The easing of France’s Covid-19 lockdown measures looks set to be a perilous process as the disease tolls continues to mount, though at a slower rate, more than a month after a nationwide lockdown was put in place.

As part of the plan, all shops and markets, but not cafés and restaurants, will be allowed to open after May 11. He also said that people should wear face masks in public "as much as possible".

French PM unveils plan to lift lockdown: 'We must learn to live with the virus'
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To make this new phase work, the prime minister said France would aim to test everyone who has been in contact with someone infected by the coronavirus. The government’s target is 700,000 tests per week starting from May 11.

"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 for 14 days," Philippe said.

Philippe also promised that enough masks will be available for all from May 11. His government is calling on all companies to provide workers with masks and will help small firms obtain them if needed. Masks will also be for sale on the post office's website and five million will be made each week to the most vulnerable people. It will be compulsory for secondary school pupils to wear one.

But unlike with tests, Philippe did not give a specific target for the number of face masks that the government will make available. France has struggled at times to provide sufficient numbers of masks to healthcare workers. There has been a “government failure” on this issue, said FRANCE 24’s political editor Marc Perelman.

Risk of economy ‘falling apart’

Setting out the principles behind the government’s actions, Philippe emphasised that “we will have to live with the virus”. He hailed the lockdown by pointing to a study suggesting that confinement prevented “70,000 deaths” in France, adding that its “positive effects outweighed its negative effects”.

However, he argued that a “lengthy lockdown” would have “negative repercussions”, including “children not going to school”, a “lack of visits” between family and friends, and a “lack of investment”. All this risked “the economy falling apart”, Philippe said.

Schools, business, transport: French PM unveils blueprint for May 11 exit from lockdown
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Some critics may argue that, counter-intuitively, prolonged lockdowns will help the economy over the long run as well as saving lives. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published on March 31 found that in the last pandemic to take the world by storm, the 1918-19 Spanish flu, US cities where lockdowns and social distancing lasted longest “performed better” economically after the disease had run its course.

Delaying lifting the lockdown?

The prime minister added the caveat that the lockdown will not be lifted on May 11 if the number of new cases is higher than 3,000 per day – as well as underlining the need for the French to be “disciplined” before that date. People who can work from home will still be expected to do so.

On the grounds that “circulation of the virus isn’t the same throughout the country”, France will unveil on May 7 a list of regions keeping a strict lockdown. The Paris region and Alsace-Lorraine in the east of the country have been hit particularly hard by Covid-19.

Philippe’s presentation was followed by a two-and-a-half hour debate in France's lower house of parliament, followed by a vote on the "national strategy of the de-confinement plan".

The issue has been a source of acrimony in French political circles, with opposition parties calling for at least 24 hours to examine the government’s plan ahead of the vote. Their request was, however, rejected on Monday.

The number of people who have died from Covid-19 in France increased by 367 to 23,660 on Tuesday, while the number of confirmed cases was up 1,520 at 129,859, the health ministry said in a statement.

The number of people in hospital with the coronavirus fell further to 27,484 from 28,055 on Monday and the number of people in intensive care fell to 4,387 from 4,608 on Monday. Both have been on a downward trend for at least two weeks.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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