France moves patients from swamped hospitals as death toll climbs

France moves patients from swamped hospitals as death toll climbs
PARIS (Reuters) – France used two high-speed trains and a German military plane to move more than three dozen critically ill coronavirus patients on Sunday to ease the pressure on overwhelmed hospitals in eastern France.

The Grand Est region was the first in France to be hit by a wave of coronavirus infections that has rapidly moved westwards to engulf the greater Paris region, where hospitals are desperately adding intensive care beds to cope with the influx.

The number of coronavirus deaths in France since March 1 climbed 13% to 2,606 on Sunday, while the total number of confirmed infections rose above 40,000.

The specially adapted trains carried 36 patients to the Nouvelle-Acquitaine region in the southwest, where a line of ambulances waited outside Bordeaux station.

“We urgently need to relieve congestion in the region’s intensive care units, because you have to stay one step ahead,” Francois Braun, head of the SAMU paramedics, told RTL radio.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Saturday warned France’s 67 million people that the toughest weeks in the fight against epidemic were still to come, as the number of patients on life support rose to more than 4,600.

Hospitals are racing to add intensive care facilities, sometimes taking ventilators out of operating theaters as they build makeshift units. Student medics are being drafted in and retired doctors are returning to the wards.

President Emmanuel Macron has deployed the army to help to move the sick while a field hospital has been set up in the eastern city of Mulhouse.

Paramedics in hazmat suits loaded several patients on life-support into a German Airbus <AIR.PA> A400M aircraft in Strasbourg for transfer across the border to the German city of Ulm.

European Affairs Minister Amelie de Montchalin hailed the German aid as a symbol of European solidarity, though she expressed frustration at the failure of European Union members to agree on how to mitigate the sharp economic downturn.

(Reporting by Richard Lough and Jean-Stephane Brosse; Editing by David Goodman and Giles Elgood)

‘We are at war’: France imposes lockdown to combat virus

By Michel Rose and Richard Lough

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday ordered stringent restrictions on people’s movement to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and said the army would be drafted in to help move the sick to hospitals.

France had already shut down restaurants and bars, closed schools and put ski resorts off limits, but Macron said measures unprecedented in peacetime were needed as the number of infected people doubled every three days and deaths spiraled higher.

In a somber address to the nation, the president said that from Tuesday midday (1100 GMT) people should stay at home unless it was to buy groceries, travel to work, exercise or for medical care.

Anyone flouting the restrictions, in place for at least the next two weeks, would be punished.

“I know what I am asking of you is unprecedented but circumstances demand it,” Macron said.

“We’re not up against another army or another nation. But the enemy is right there: invisible, elusive, but it is making progress.”

He said tougher action was needed after too many people ignored earlier warnings and mingled in parks and on street corners over the weekend, risking their own health and the wellbeing of others.

In France the coronavirus has killed 148 people and infected more than 6,600.

ARMY MOBILIZED

Under the new measures, soldiers would help transport the sick to hospitals with spare capacity and a military hospital with 30 intensive care beds would be set up in the eastern region of Alsace, where one of the largest infection clusters has broken out.

Macron said he was postponing the second round of local elections on Sunday. Because the government’s sole focus needed to be fighting the pandemic, he said he was suspending his reform agenda, starting with his overhaul of the pension system.

The government would, when necessary, legislate by decree to fight the coronavirus, he said.

Coronavirus infections and fatalities in France and Spain have been surging at a pace just days behind that of Italy, the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe where hospitals in the worst-hit northern regions are stretched to breaking point.

Seeking to offer further reassurance to businesses, Macron said the government would guarantee 300 billion euros worth of loans. The loan guarantee plan would be submitted to parliament in coming weeks and would be retroactive, a finance ministry source said.

Rent and utility bills owed by small companies would also be suspended to help them weather the economic storm, he added.

“No French company, whatever its size, will be exposed to the risk of collapse,” Macron said.

(Reporting by Michel Rose and Benoit Van Overstraten; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Christian Lowe)

Lockdowns and entry bans imposed around the world to fight coronavirus

(Reuters) – France and Spain joined Italy in imposing lockdowns on tens of millions of people, Australia ordered self-isolation of arriving foreigners and other countries extended entry bans as the world sought to contain the spreading coronavirus.

Panic buying in Australia, the United States and Britain saw leaders appeal for calm over the virus that has infected over 156,000 people globally and killed more than 5,800.

Several countries imposed bans on mass gathering, shuttered sporting, cultural and religious events, while medical experts urged people to practice “social distancing” to curb the spread.

Austria’s chancellor urged people to self-isolate and announced bans on gatherings of more than five people and further limits on who can enter the country.

All of Pope Francis’ Easter services next month will be held without the faithful attending, the Vatican said on Sunday, in a step believed to be unprecedented in modern times.

The services, four days of major events from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday, usually draw tens of thousands of people to sites in Rome and in the Vatican.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said from midnight Sunday international travelers arriving in the country would need to isolate themselves for 14 days, and foreign cruise ships would be banned for 30 days, given a rise in imported cases.

Australia’s latest restrictions mirror those announced by neighboring New Zealand on Saturday.

TRAVEL BANS, AIRLINE CUTBACKS

Donald Trump tested negative for the coronavirus, his doctor said on Saturday, as the U.S. president extended his country’s travel ban to Britain and Ireland.

Last week, Trump had met a Brazilian delegation in which at least one member has since been tested positive.

Travel restrictions and bans, and a plunge in global air travel, saw further airline cutbacks, with American Airlines Inc planning to cut 75% of international flights through May 6 and ground nearly all its widebody fleet.

China tightened checks on international travelers arriving at Beijing airport on Sunday, after the number of imported new coronavirus infections surpassed locally transmitted cases for a second day in a row.

Anyone arriving to Beijing from abroad will be transferred directly to a central quarantine facility for 14 days for observation starting March 16, a city government official said.

China, where the epidemic began in December, appears to now face a greater threat of new infections from outside its borders as it continues to slow the spread of the virus domestically.

South Korean soldiers clean desks with disinfectant in a classroom of a cram school for civil service exams, following the rise in confirmed cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Daegu, South Korea, March 15, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

China has reported 80,984 cases and 3,203 deaths. The country imposed draconian containment policies from January, locking down several major cities.

LOCKDOWNS, STAY HOME

Spain put its 47 million inhabitants under partial lockdown on Saturday as part of a 15-day state of emergency to combat the epidemic in Europe’s second worst-affected country after Italy.

Streets in Madrid and Barcelona were deserted on Sunday. All major newspapers carried a front-page wrapper emblazoned with a government-promoted slogan: “Together we’ll stop this virus.”

Spain has had 193 deaths from the virus and 6,250 cases so far, public broadcaster TVE said on Sunday.

France will shut shops, restaurants and entertainment facilities from Sunday with its 67 million people were told to stay home after confirmed infections doubled in 72 hours.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the government had no other option after the public health authority said 91 people had died in France and almost 4,500 were now infected.

“We must absolutely limit our movements,” he said.

However, French local elections went ahead.

“I am going to vote and keep living my life no matter what. I am not scared of the virus,” said a 60-year-old voter, who asked to be identified only as Martine, at a Paris polling station.

Britain is preparing to ban mass gatherings and could isolate people aged over 70 for up to four months as part of plans to tackle coronavirus, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.

Argentina banned entry to non-residents who have been to any country highly affected by coronavirus in the last 14 days, while Colombia said it would expel four Europeans for violating compulsory quarantine protocols, hours after closing its border with Venezuela.

Starting Sunday, South Korea began to subject visitors from France, Germany, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands to stricter border checks, after imposing similar rules for China, Italy and Iran which have had major outbreaks.

Visitors from those countries now need to download an app to report whether they have symptoms. South Korea has been testing hundreds of thousands of people and tracking potential carriers using cell phone and satellite technology.

(Reporting by John Irish in Paris;Belén Carreño, Sonya Dowsett and Ingrid Melander in Madrid; Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Judy Hua in Beijing; Kate Lamb in Sydney; David Shepardson in Washington; Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Paul Sandle in London; Philip Pullella in Rome; Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi in Zurich; Writing by Michael Perry and Frances Kerry; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Edmund Blair)

UK conducts random coronavirus testing as part of early warning plan

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain has started random tests for coronavirus on flu patients to have an early warning system in place in case the outbreak becomes more widespread, a senior health official said.

Britain has so far had 13 cases of coronavirus. An outbreak in northern Italy worsened on Wednesday, and the illness has spread to Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Croatia and France via visitors who were recently in northern Italy.

“We’re heightening our vigilance because of the apparent spread of the virus in countries outside mainland China,” Public Health England’s medical director, Paul Cosford, told BBC radio on Wednesday.

The disease is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.

British health minister Matt Hancock said the government had plans in place in case the virus becomes a pandemic.

In Britain, random tests for the virus will be carried out at 11 hospitals and 100 general medical offices on people who have flu symptoms including a cough, plus shortness of breath and a fever.

“This testing will tell us whether there’s evidence of infection more widespread than we think there is. We don’t think there is at the moment,” PHE’s Cosford said.

“The other thing it will do is, if we do get to the position of more widespread infection across the country, then it will give us early warning that that’s happening,” he added.

Hancock told parliament the government expected more cases in Britain and was planning to introduce home testing.

“We are taking all necessary measures to minimise the risk to the public,” he said. “The public can be assured that we have a clear plan to contain, delay, research and mitigate this virus.”

Media have reported several schools have closed or sent pupils home after returning from trips to northern Italy during last week’s school holiday. Hancock said there was no need for schools to close or other students or staff to be sent home.

(Reporting by Sarah Young and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by William Schomberg and Stephen Addison)

French police clash with firefighters at Paris demonstration

PARIS (Reuters) – French police clashed on Tuesday with firefighters protesting in Paris against their working conditions and demanding more pay.

Thousands of firefighters attended the protest in the French capital, asking for an increase of their hazard bonus, which has not changed since 1990.

Police fired tear gas and hit some protesters with batons.

In October, firefighters also protested in Paris, calling for better pay, guarantees of their pension benefits and greater respect for their profession.

France has seen widespread labor unrest since December, with unions mobilizing against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to reform the pension system.

(Reporting by Matthieu Protard and Sophie Louet; Editing by Peter Graff)

Putin proposes 2020 summit with leaders of Russia, France, China, U.S. and UK

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday proposed holding a summit between the leaders of Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain in 2020 to discuss the conflict in Libya and other global problems.

Putin, who was speaking during a trip to Israel, said Moscow was ready for a “serious conversation” with the permanent members of the UN Security Council, that there was much to discuss and that the summit could happen anywhere in the world.

“In any country, at any point of the world that is convenient for our colleagues. Russia is ready for this kind of serious conversation,” he said.

“There are many tasks before us. We discussed one of them very recently in Berlin…That is Libya. And we need to return to this problem at the Security Council and adopt the corresponding resolution,” he said.

Putin, who was in Israel on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, said holding such a summit would be an important symbolic step ahead of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two.

“We discussed (this) with several colleagues and as far as I understand in general we saw a positive reaction to holding a meeting of the heads of the permanent members of the UN Security Council…” he said.

(Reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Iran could have nuclear weapon within one to two years: French minister

Iran could have nuclear weapon within one to two years: French minister
PARIS (Reuters) – Iran could have nuclear weapons in one to two years if the country carries on violating the 2015 nuclear accord, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Friday.

“If they continue with unravelling the Vienna agreement, then yes, within a fairly short period of time, between one and two years, they could have access to a nuclear weapon, which is not an option”, Le Drian said on RTL radio.

EU foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting on Friday to seek ways to guide the United States and Iran away from confrontation, knowing that a miscalculation on either side could leave the bloc facing a war and a serious nuclear proliferation crisis on its doorstep.

(Reporting by John Irish, Dominique Vidalon and Marine Pennetier; Writing by Matthieu Protard; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

French police fire tear gas at strikers challenging Macron reform

By Sybille de La Hamaide and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) – Police fired tear gas at protesters in the center of Paris on Thursday and public transport ground to a near halt in one of the biggest strikes in France for decades, aimed at forcing President Emmanuel Macron to ditch a planned reform of pensions.

The strike pits Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker who came to power in 2017 on a promise to open up France’s highly regulated economy, against powerful trade unions who say he is set on dismantling worker protections.

The outcome depends on who blinks first – the unions who risk losing public support if the disruption goes on for too long, or the government which fears voters could side with the unions and blame officials for the standoff.

“People can work around it today and tomorrow, but next week people may get annoyed,” said 56-year-old cafe owner Isabelle Guibal.

Rail workers voted to extend their strike through Friday, while labor unions at the Paris bus and metro operator RATP said their walkout would continue until Monday.

Trade unions achieved their initial objective on Thursday, as workers at transport enterprises, schools and hospitals across France joined the strike. In Paris, commuters had to dust off old bicycles, rely on car pooling apps, or just stay at home. The Eiffel Tower had to close to visitors.

On Thursday afternoon, tens of thousands of union members marched through the center of the capital in a show of force.

Trouble erupted away from the main protest when people in masks and dressed in black ransacked a bus stop near the Place de la Republique, ripped up street furniture, smashed shop windows and threw fireworks at police.

Police in riot gear responded by firing tear gas, Reuters witnesses said. Nearby, police used truncheons to defend themselves from black-clad protesters who rushed at them. Prosecutors said, in all, 57 people were detained.

Macron wants to simplify France’s unwieldy pension system, which comprises more than 40 different plans, many with different retirement ages and benefits. Rail workers, mariners and Paris Opera House ballet dancers can retire up to a decade earlier than the average worker.

Macron says the system is unfair and too costly. He wants a single, points-based system under which for each euro contributed, every pensioner has equal rights.

PRESIDENT’S SWAGGER

Macron has already survived one major challenge to his rule, from the grassroots “Yellow Vest” protesters who earlier this year clashed with police and blocked roads around France for weeks on end.

Having emerged from that crisis, he carries himself with a swagger on the world stage, publicly upbraiding U.S. President Donald Trump this week over his approach to the NATO alliance and counter-terrorism.

But the pension reform – on which polls show French people evenly split between supporters and opponents – is fraught with risk for him as it chips away at social protections many in France believe are at the heart of their national identity.

“People are spoiling for a fight,” Christian Grolier, a senior official from the hard-left Force Ouvriere union which is helping organize the strike, told Reuters.

The SNCF state railway said only one in 10 high-speed TGV trains would run and police reported power cables on the line linking Paris and the Riviera had been vandalized. The civil aviation authority asked airlines to cancel 20% of flights because of knock-on effects from the strike.

Past attempts at pension reform have ended badly for the authorities. Former president Jacques Chirac’s conservative government in 1995 caved into union demands after weeks of crippling protests.

(Reporting by Caroline Pailliez, Geert de Clercq, Sybille de La Hamaide, Marine Pennetier, Laurence Frost in paris and Guillaume Frouin in Nantes; Writing by Richard Lough and Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones)

‘Very, very nasty’: Trump clashes with Macron before NATO summit

By Michel Rose and Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and French leader Emmanuel Macron clashed over the future of NATO on Tuesday before a summit intended to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Western military alliance.

In sharp exchanges underlining discord in a transatlantic bloc hailed by backers as the most successful military pact in history, Trump demanded that Europe pay more for its collective defense and make concessions to U.S. interests on trade.

Macron, the French president, stood by comments he made last month describing NATO as suffering from a lack of strategic purpose akin to “brain death”, and criticized fellow NATO member Turkey, which he accused of working with Islamic State proxies.

Washington and Paris have long argued over NATO’s purpose – France opposed the 2003 Iraq war – but the new tensions will add to doubts over the alliance’s future that have grown with Trump’s ambivalence over U.S. commitments to defend Europe.

Trump said Macron’s criticism of NATO was “very, very nasty” and questioned whether the U.S. military should defend any countries that were “delinquent” on alliance targets for national military spending.

“It’s not right to be taken advantage of on NATO and also then to be taken advantage of on trade, and that’s what happens. We can’t let that happen,” Trump said of transatlantic disputes on issues ranging from the aerospace sector to a European digital services tax on U.S. technology giants.

All 29 member states have a target of spending 2% of their gross domestic product on defense and Trump has singled out Germany for falling short of that goal.

But Macron stood by his criticism of NATO and said its real problem was a failure to forge a clear purpose since the end of the Cold War.

“If we invest money and put our soldiers’ lives at risk in theaters of operation we must be clear about the fundamentals of NATO,” he said in a tweet at the end of a day overshadowed by tensions between the French and U.S. leaders.

A French presidency official said Trump often makes strident statements ahead of bilateral meetings and cools his rhetoric later. He noted that Macron and Trump “exchanged jokes and were very relaxed” at a joint news conference in London.

COLLECTIVE DEFENSE AT STAKE

Turkey threatened to block a plan to defend Baltic states and Poland against Russian attacks unless NATO backed Ankara in recognizing the Kurdish YPG militia as terrorists.

The YPG’s fighters have long been U.S. and French allies against Islamic State in Syria. Turkey considers them an enemy because of links to Kurdish insurgents in southeastern Turkey.

“If our friends at NATO do not recognize as terrorist organizations those we consider terrorist organizations … we will stand against any step that will be taken there,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said before traveling to London.

Erdogan has already strained alliance ties with a move to buy Russian air defense systems. Trump said he was looking at imposing sanctions on Ankara over the issue.

The uncertainty over the plan for Poland and the Baltic states, drawn up at their request after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, raises issues about security on all of NATO’s frontiers.

Under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 1949 founding treaty, an attack on one ally is an attack on all its members, and the alliance has military strategies for collective defense across its territory.

The summit, in a hotel in Hertfordshire just outside London, begins on Wednesday.

On Tuesday evening, alliance leaders attended a reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace.

The British monarch, in a teal-colored matching jacket and skirt, greeted the summiteers and accompanying partners, including former fashion model Melania Trump, who was wearing a bright yellow dress with matching cape and purple sleeves.

They were then welcomed to 10 Downing Street by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, host of the summit a little over a week before the country faces an election.

Several hundred protesters gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square, holding placards reading: “Dump Trump” and “No to racism, no to Trump”. A police line divided them from a small group of Trump supporters wearing Make America Great Again caps, waving American flags and shouting: “Build the wall”.

In Washington on Tuesday, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives laid out their impeachment case against Trump, accusing him of using the powers of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Hoping to placate Trump, Europe, Turkey and Canada will pledge at the summit some $400 billion in defense spending by 2024, and agree to a reduction of the U.S. contribution to fund the alliance itself.

The allies will approve a new strategy to monitor China’s growing military activity, and identify space as a domain of warfare, alongside air, land, sea and computer networks.

Trump said he believed Russia wanted deals on arms control and nuclear issues, and that he would be willing to bring China into such accords.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Phil Stewart, Robin Emmott and Iona Serrapica in London, Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Writing by Mark John and John Chalmers; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Cooney)

U.S. accuses Russia of helping Syria cover up chemical weapons use

By Anthony Deutsch

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday accused Russia of helping Syria conceal the use of banned toxic munitions in the civil war by undermining the work of the global chemical weapons agency trying to identify those responsible.

The comments by the U.S. representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Kenneth Ward, drew a rapid denial from Moscow and came as Western powers and Russia clashed at the agency’s annual conference in The Hague.

Moscow has for months cited dissent by two former OPCW employees who leaked a document and an email as evidence that the OPCW doctored the conclusions of a March 1 report which found that a toxic chemical containing chlorine was used in a 2018 attack near Damascus.

More than 40 people were killed in that attack in Douma, a town on the outskirts of the capital then held by rebels, on April 7, 2018.

The United States, Britain and France retaliated a week later by firing missiles at Syrian government targets, the biggest Western military action against the Damascus authorities of the eight-year-old war.

Syria and Russia deny there ever was a chemical attack in Douma, saying the event was staged using bodies brought from elsewhere, and that the OPCW’s report on Douma was doctored to justify Western military intervention.

The OPCW has become the battleground for a diplomatic clash on Syria after Russia in 2017 vetoed a resolution to extend the mandate of the U.N.-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which concluded in a series of reports that the Syrian military used both nerve agent sarin and chlorine as weapons.

The OPCW’s own Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which was established by a clear majority vote by its member states in June 2018, is looking into who was responsible for the Douma attack, among several other incidents.

Its first report is expected next year.

Russian Ambassador to the OPCW, Alexander Shulgin, repeated objections to the creation of the IIT, saying it was illegal and politicized. Syria’s representative to the OPCW on Thursday vowed not to cooperate with the IIT’s investigations.

Ward said Russia and Syria were merely seeking to cover up the use of chemical weapons by undermining the OPCW.

“Unfortunately the Russian Federation has played a central role in this cover-up,” Ward told delegates. “Russia and Syria may sit with us here, but they stand apart from us in a fundamental way. They continue to embrace chemical weapons.”

Shulgin rejected the U.S. claim that Russia was helping Syria cover up chemical crimes carried out by the Syrian regime.

“It is exquisite rhetoric… But these assertions do not hold water. We disagree,” Shulgin said.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Editing by William Maclean)