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France rules out 'total lockdown' in case of Covid-19 second wave

French Prime Minister Jean Castex answers questions to the government session at the National Assembly in Paris, France, July 8, 2020.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex answers questions to the government session at the National Assembly in Paris, France, July 8, 2020. © Gonzalo Fuentes, REUTERS
5 min

The French government said Wednesday it was girding for a possible surge in coronavirus cases in coming months but would not respond to any new outbreak with another nationwide lockdown.

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"My aim is to prepare France for a possible second wave while preserving our daily life, our economic and social life," new Prime Minister Jean Castex said in an interview on RTL television.

"But we're not going to impose a lockdown like the one we did last March, because we've learned... that the economic and human consequences from a total lockdown are disastrous," he said.

Instead, any business closures or stay-at-home orders would be "targeted" to specific areas, he said.

"The coronavirus is still here," Castex warned, adding that he would travel on Sunday to France's South American territory of French Guiana, which is reeling from a surge in cases. Officials reported 124 new cases in the territory on Tuesday, bringing the total to nearly 5,200, and the government has dispatched dozens of health workers from the mainland as well as a field hospital. 

Seasonal impact unknown

The head of France's public health agency, Jérôme Salomon, said authorities were anticipating a second wave of Covid-19 cases "this autumn or this winter", depending on a seasonal impact that remains uncertain. 

"What we have to understand is that the epidemic's resurgence will basically depend on our behaviour," he said in an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro.

Even as millions of people prepare to relax over the summer holiday seasons, Salomon urged continued social distancing and the use of face masks, "especially in crowded places and indoors".   

France ended its two-month lockdown on May 11. Setting out the principles behind the government’s actions in a speech on April 28, Castex's predecessor Édouard 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”.

But he argued that “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 put the economy at risk of “falling apart”, Philippe said.

As the civil servant in charge of easing France’s lockdown at the time, Castex appeared to take a somewhat different view on renewed confinement measures. In a report published on May 11, he argued that France should consider the “possibility of an emergency rethink” in the case of a surge in cases.

'Protect people'              

Castex was named by President Emmanuel Macron last week to lead a new government tasked with orchestrating the country's recovery from its worst health and economic crisis since World War II.

Billions of euros have been promised for investments as well as measures to limit job losses in an economy expected to shrink more than 10 percent this year. 

"We are going to protect people, but above all we are going to invest in the ecological transformation, in our country's recovery," Castex said.

He also confirmed he had increased a proposed wage hike and budget boosts for hospital staff by around €1 billion in negotiations with unions this week, bring the total to €7.5 billion ($8.5 billion).

But union leaders say that would lift monthly pay for nurses, technicians and others on the front lines of the coronavirus fight by only €180 a month, far short of demands for a €300 raise.

The outbreak has killed nearly 30,000 people in France since the first cases were reported in January.

Some critics of Castex's current strategy to contain Covid-19 argue that prolonged lockdowns will help the economy in the long run as well as save 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 1918-1919 Spanish flu, US cities where lockdowns and social distancing lasted longest performed better economically overall after the disease had run its course.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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