French PM warns against 'lowering guard' in fight to curb Covid-19

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French Prime Minister Jean Castex said Thursday that France appears to be taming the latest wave of Covid-19 infections but cautioned the French not to lower their guard amid a second lockdown.

Prime Minister Jean Castex made the comments at a press briefing in Paris on Thursday where he sought to reassure the French public that while progress had been made to reduce the Covid-19 infection rate there would be no "premature" lifting of the latest lockdown measures.

Castex said the R rate, which measures the spread of a virus per each person infected, was now at 0.65 countrywide, the same level France reached at the end of an initial three-month lockdown in the spring. An R rate of 1.0 means that each infected person is spreading the virus to one other person, keeping community-wide infection rates steady.

"Your efforts are paying dividends," Castex said. "Pressure from the pandemic is easing and it is easing more in France than in other European nations."

However, the prime minister warned against complacency.

"We cannot lower our guard. Our objective is to allow a gradual return to a more normal life, to allow you to spend the holiday season with your loved ones while minimising the risk of a resurgence of the virus,” Castex said.

French Health Minister Olivier Véran, who also addressed the briefing, struck a note of optimism in saying the government's target of reducing new virus infections to 5,000 per day could be reached as early as the second week of December. However, he said the second wave was not yet over, referring to recent figures showing that in France a Covid-19 patient was admitted to intensive care every six minutes.

President Emmanuel Macron this week announced a phased lifting of the lockdown to begin on Saturday with the re-opening of non-essential shops and then theatres, museums and cinemas in mid-December if trends continue to improve.

Stores must restrict numbers to one client for every 8 square metres of shop floor, introduce one-way movement where possible and ventilate their premises, the government said.

Bars and restaurants will stay closed until January 20.

The finance ministry said the expanded financial support for businesses would cost €3.5 billion in December.

A leading government adviser said mass inoculations would be needed for France to return to some sort of normality in the autumn of 2021 – something that might prove difficult in a country where scepticism of vaccines runs strong.

The government is under pressure from some economic sectors to accelerate the easing of restrictions, in particular from the hospitality and ski industries.

Households are also feeling the pain. French and German consumer confidence sank in November as coronavirus restrictions crushed any prospect of a quick reboot in the eurozone's two biggest economies.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)