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France confirms plan to start easing Covid-19 lockdown on May 11

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe stands alongside Health Minister Olivier Veran (on the right) at a press conference to present the final details of the government's plan to ease a nationwide lockdown from May 11, at the Matignon Hotel on 7 May, 2020, in Paris.
French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe stands alongside Health Minister Olivier Veran (on the right) at a press conference to present the final details of the government's plan to ease a nationwide lockdown from May 11, at the Matignon Hotel on 7 May, 2020, in Paris. © Christophe Archambault, AFP

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe on Thursday detailed his government’s plan for easing Covid-19 confinement measures on May 11, warning that the exit from lockdown would be gradual and targeted to stem a resurgence of the viral outbreak. 

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The prime minister confirmed that May 11 would mark the beginning of a “progressive” exit from lockdown, ending almost two months of strict confinement for France’s 67-million-strong population.

“Next Monday will mark the start of a very gradual process stretching over several weeks at least, which will allow the country to emerge slowly but steadily from the lockdown," Philippe told a news conference, hours after the government put the final touches to its highly-anticipated roadmap.

'Very gradual' process of Covid-19 lockdown easing starts Monday, says French PM

Philippe said the government was looking to “strike the right balance between the indispensable resumption of economic (...) life and the indispensable need” to ensure the safety of the public. He said the exit from lockdown would be “differentiated”, with restrictions to be lifted gradually and varying between regions.

"The country is cut in two, with the virus circulating more quickly in some regions," he explained.

The French PM unveiled an updated version of the government's colour-coded map dividing the country between red zones, for high-infection areas, and green zones, where infections have been markedly lower. The map is designed to serve as a reference for lockdown easing measures.

“Some areas are still seeing an active circulation of the virus or a lot of pressure on hospitals. Those are classified as red areas,” Philippe said. “We will be ending the lockdown there, but some restrictions will remain in place: middle schools will remain closed, and so will parks and public gardens.”

Extra vigilance in Paris region

The prime minister said both the authorities and the public would have to remain "especially vigilant" in the densely populated Paris region, a red zone, “where the number of cases is going down but remains high – higher than we had hoped for.”

Beyond the Paris area, administrative regions around Calais, Strasbourg and Dijon will also remain classified as "red zones".

Vigilance necessary particularly in Greater Paris area, says French PM Philippe

As part of the phased exit from lockdown, primary schools and most businesses — though not cafes and restaurants — will be allowed to reopen as of May 11, both in red and green zones. In the latter zones, Philippe said secondary schools, cafes and restaurants may open from early June if the infection rate remains low. 

An exception will be made for the overseas territory of Mayotte, where “infections are rising fast”, Philippe said, warning that the lockdown would be prolonged there.

The elderly and other vulnerable populations, including people with underlying medical conditions, will not be confined to their homes after May 11, the PM added, though he advised extreme caution.

“We trust people who know they are vulnerable to do what is necessary to stay safe,” he said.

Face masks compulsory

The government has urged companies to ensure employees can continue working from home when possible and, if not, to introduce shift working to avoid transport congestion and ensure physical distancing.

Speaking after Philippe, Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne said face masks would be compulsory on public transport for everyone aged 11 and above. Commuters travelling during rush hour in the Paris region will need to carry a document signed by their employer, she added.

In order to enforce social distancing measures, public transport providers will operate at around 50% capacity from May 11, Borne said, adding that the government was hoping to reach full capacity by early June.

>> Key points of France’s strategy for lifting its nationwide Covid-19 lockdown

Addressing another sensitive issue, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said children would begin returning to nursery and primary schools from Monday on a voluntary basis. Classes will be restricted to 15 pupils in primary schools and 10 in nursery schools.

Blanquer said roughly one million students would be heading back to classrooms next week, with priority given to the children of medical personnel and other key workers, and those with learning difficulties.

"All teachers will be back at school," he added — a decision that is likely to anger the many teachers who have described the return to school as dangerously premature.

Sceptical public

The coronavirus pandemic has killed almost 26,000 people in France since March 1, though the number of new hospitalisations and ICU cases has fallen steadily in recent weeks.

Like other governments across Europe, France is wrestling with the conundrum of how best to lift lockdown measures that have battered its economy while staving off a second wave of contagion.

Wrapping up Thursday's news conference, Philippe said the government would reassess at the end of May whether conditions were right to ease restrictions further — or whether some should be reinstated.

If infection figures “stay low we will be able to move on to the next stage, we’ll be able to open up new areas,” he said. “But if they don’t change, if they increase, we'll have to consider future confinement measures.”

The government's plans to unwind the lockdown have drawn fire from critics, who say they are confusing and premature. In particular, opposition legislators and some experts have questioned the practicalities of schools reopening, the broad use of public transport and the tough restrictions that will continue to affect areas less affected by the virus.

The government is also under pressure from a deeply sceptical public. 

According to an Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting survey published by France Info on Wednesday, 58% of people surveyed don’t trust the government to implement a successful lockdown exit plan. More than two thirds believe schools will not be able to ensure the safety of pupils and teachers, and 74% say public transport will not be safe (including 80% in the Paris region).

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