President Emmanuel Macron extended France’s lockdown to combat the coronavirus and fended off criticism of his government by saying the country was under-prepared before the pandemic hit.
Macron aims to gradually begin opening up the economy and schools again from May 11, he said in a televised address Monday. The extension follows a similar decision in neighboring Italy.
The announcement also came with the first increase in the daily death toll in four days. Fatalities linked to the virus rose by 574 to 14,967, according to the health ministry. The growth of newly recorded cases slowed, however, to 4,188 for a total of 136,779.
“Were we prepared for this crisis? Obviously, not enough,” Macron said. “But we confronted the situation. In France like anywhere else, we had to handle emergencies, make difficult decisions, based on partial, often changing information, and always adapt.”
France is the third-hardest hit country in Europe, after Italy and Spain. While all three countries have imposed lockdowns on most aspects of every day life, fellow European Union members including Denmark and Austria have eased restrictions, with Norway saying it will follow suit.
According to a study by the French National Health and Medical Research Institute published by Le Monde Sunday, lifting restrictions without a proper strategy of testing and isolation would trigger a second wave and overwhelm the French health-care system.
While the government has doubled the number of intensive-care unit beds with the goal to eventually reach 14,500, from 5,000 before the epidemic, only 1% to 6% of the population has been infected, the study estimated.
Macron, who has called the crisis a “war,” said France will be able to test all patients with symptoms from May 11. While schools and nurseries are set to gradually re-open from then, universities will remain closed. Public events, venues, bars, cafes, museums and restaurants won’t re-open at least until mid-July, and a specific plan will be unveiled to support the tourism sector, he said.
The president is battling growing mistrust after initially saying lockdown measures weren’t necessary and then reversing the stance a month ago. His government is also facing accusations of having dismissed the use of face-masks in public. It has since called for the production of less-protective masks for non-health workers.
“From the moment these issues were identified, we swung into action,” Macron said, attributing the lack of protective garb and sanitizing gels to global shortages. “The past few weeks were marked by real successes.”
Macron’s administration is also racing to support companies and furloughed workers as the lockdown masures hammer the economy. The government now sees output shrinking by as much as 6% this year.
Approval for the government’s handling of the epidemic dropped six points to 38%, according to a survey by the Ifop pollster published Sunday in the Journal Du Dimanche. That compared with 45% that trusted the government to help companies through the crisis.
(Updates with comments from Macron starting in fourth paragraph.)
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