Stranded truckers fume as they wait to leave UK after COVID blockade

By Peter Nicholls and Gerry Mey

DOVER, England (Reuters) – Furious truck drivers stranded at the English port of Dover scuffled with police as Britain sought to get cross-Channel traffic moving after a partial blockade by France to contain a highly infectious coronavirus variant.

Paris and London agreed late on Tuesday that drivers carrying a negative test result could board ferries for Calais from Wednesday after much of the world shut its borders to Britain to contain the new mutated variant.

The British government has drafted in the military to help but there was confusion amongst drivers about how to get tests, and warnings it would take time to clear the backlog of trucks, hammering Britain’s most important trade route for food just days before it leaves the European Union’s orbit.

“Testing has begun as we look to get traffic moving again between the UK and France,” British transport minister Grant Shapps said on Twitter. “However, French border police only acting on agreement from this morning and severe delays continue.”

Huge queues of trucks have been stacked on a motorway towards the Eurotunnel Channel Tunnel and on roads to Dover in the southeast county of Kent, while others have been parked up at the former nearby airport at Manston.

With no sign of traffic to the European mainland resuming and confusion over how to get a coronavirus test, tempers were beginning to flare among drivers, many from Eastern Europe who do not speak English and are angry that they will not be able to get home to their families before Christmas.

Police said there had been disturbances in Dover and Manston “involving individuals hoping to cross the Channel” and one arrest had been made.

“This is not how it should work. We have no information, the people need to be fetching information,” Mekki Coskun from Dortmund in Germany, told Reuters.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he had been in touch with Britain’s Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron about the jam.

“This can be done differently. This whole process could’ve been better organized,” he said.

The Road Haulage Association, which estimated there were up to 10,000 trucks being held up in Kent, said it was chaotic.

“The border is still closed, the testing regime isn’t happening yet, you’ve got truckers very angry and we’re starting to see a breakdown in law and order in a small way among very frustrated guys who want to get back by Christmas,” Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy for the RHA, said.

Normally between 7,500-8,500 trucks travel via the port every day but volumes have reached more than 10,000 recently.

Getlink, the operator of the Channel Tunnel, said just 45 trucks had reached France between midnight and 1100 GMT.

FURTHER BREXIT DISRUPTION

Some of the extra traffic was a result of Christmas demand, but many were in the country to deliver goods to companies who are stockpiling parts before Britain finally leaves the EU on Dec. 31, a move that is expected to cause further disruption in January when a full customs border comes into force.

The British Retail Consortium, an industry lobby group, warned that until the backlog of trucks was cleared and supply chains returned to normal, there could be issues with the availability of some fresh goods.

Logistics firms have also said that many European drivers had already refused to come to Britain in the new year when they would have to carry customs paperwork, and the need to secure a coronavirus test will further compound the situation, pushing up freight prices.

Drivers will first take a rapid lateral flow test. Anyone who records a positive result will take a more comprehensive PCR test, which takes longer to secure a result, and anyone testing positive again will be given a hotel room to isolate.

Many of the mostly European drivers, many stranded with their trucks and without access to hot food or bathroom facilities, believe they are pawns in a political standoff between Britain and the EU as trade talks reach a climax.

“We don’t have food to eat, we don’t have drink, we don’t have anything, nobody … cares about us,” said Stella Vradzheva a driver from Sterlcha in Bulgaria.

(Additional reporting by James Davey, Joanna Plucinska, and Yiming Woo; Writing by Kate Holton and Michael Holden; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alison Williams)

France promises 1 billion euros for curfew-hit companies

PARIS (Reuters) – Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire promised 1 billion euros ($1.17 billion) of additional support to help French companies cushion the impact of a nightly curfew in Paris and eight other big cities where the coronavirus is running rampant.

Le Maire also said that companies in the beleaguered hospitality industry would be exempt from social charges if their revenues crashed by more than 50% as a result of the curfews.

The curfews are President Emmanuel Macron’s response to a dilemma facing countries across Europe: how to keep the economy running and protect jobs while slowing the spread of infections and taking pressure off the creaking healthcare systems.

“The new measures will cost about 1 billion euros over the duration of the curfew,” Le Maire told a news conference.

Le Maire also said he was asking banks to delay interest payments on state-guaranteed loans to struggling companies in the hotel, restaurant and events industries.

The French banking lobby, FBF, said in emailed comment to Reuters that “banks share the idea that flexibility should be the rule”.

French banks have given out more than 120 billion euros in state-backed loans so far this year. FBF added that a permanent dialogue between companies and their bankers was essential in order to find the best solution for reimbursement of the loans.

“Banks are confident in their ability to act, as they did during the deployment of PGE (state-backed loans), in a perfect coordination with public authorities and businesses,” FBF said.

Prime Minister Jean Castex said people could break the curfew to travel to and from work, catch a train or plane, seek medical attention and even walk a dog – but an interior ministry exemption document would be needed in case of a police check.

France’s interior minister said 12,000 police would enforce the curfews in Paris, Toulouse, Marseille, Montpellier, Grenoble, Rouen, Lille, Lyon and Saint-Etienne. In all, the curfew order covers about 20 million people, almost a third of France’s population.

Anyone breaking the curfew will be fined 135 euros

(Reporting by Geert de Clercq; Writing by Benoit Van Overstraeten; Editing by John Stonestreet and Tomasz Janowski and Kirsten Donovan)

French labs show how global supply bottlenecks thwart effort to ramp up testing

By Richard Lough

PARIS (Reuters) – Mass testing was meant to be the answer to the second wave. Politicians promised that with enough tests, conducted quickly enough, they could keep the coronavirus in check, without having to resort to lockdowns that crippled economies six months ago.

But so far, with a surge sweeping Europe just as students return to school and university, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. There aren’t enough tests, and they are taking too long.

Pierre-Adrien Bihl, who runs four labs that together conduct 800 tests a day in eastern France, has one explanation for what has gone wrong: a global supply chain that can’t keep up.

“I spend my days checking orders have been made and received and hassling my supplier to deliver, deliver, deliver,” he said. “But all their clients demand the same thing.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, like other European leaders, has pressed for a swift increase in tests. His government promises that anyone who needs a test can get one.

But five companies that operate laboratories in Paris and eastern France told Reuters there was simply no way they could work any faster, as long as they are struggling to obtain chemicals and test kits that are mainly produced abroad.

This week, Bihl said, he had to take his diagnostic machine offline for nearly 24 hours, after a four-day delay in the delivery of some single-use parts.

The shutdown forced Bihl to reduce testing appointments until the backlog could be made up, he said, adding that such shutdowns were taking place three or four times a month.

Arthur Clement, who runs four laboratories, said the U.S. manufacturer of his diagnostic machine, Cepheid, was sending him just 300 test kits per month at the end of the summer, as cases surged.

With his labs performing 25,000 tests per month, Clement had to send nearly all of them out to a third party, where they were taking up to 7-10 days to get results. Cepheid did not respond to a request for comment.

Clement ordered a new diagnostic machine from a South Korean manufacturer two months ago, which finally arrived last Friday, and now he says he can perform all tests in-house and deliver results in a day.

GLOBAL MARKET

In Paris, queues snake out of testing centers each day, with lines forming before sunrise at some. People with COVID symptoms are waiting on average three days for their results, according to official data, though for some the wait can be double.

France is now conducting more than 1.2 million polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests per week in response to the epidemic, which has killed more than 31,000 people in the country and infected nearly half a million.

The French health ministry denies that there is a nationwide shortage of chemicals. It says there have been localized shortages in some parts of the country, but the overall supply is adequate. Health Minister Olivier Veran has said France has access to supplies of reagents equivalent to double the actual demand for tests.

But laboratories can’t just order chemicals from anywhere: testing machines typically require proprietary chemical kits and tools, some of which can be obtained only from the manufacturer.

The ministry recommends laboratories diversify their suppliers of testing machines, to mitigate the risk of one supply chain becoming blocked. But that means buying extra machines to duplicate capacity, which costs more money and can take months.

Suppliers of the machines to French labs include Cepheid and Becton Dickinson in the United States, Switzerland’s Roche, and France’s Biomerieux and Eurobio Scientific.

Cepheid, Roche and Eurobio Scientific did not respond to requests for comment on the supply of COVID equipment and reagents.

Becton Dickinson told Reuters in an email it was delivering more than 1 million tests per month globally. It acknowledged that this has fallen short of demand, but said it aims to scale up to 1.9 million per month by late 2020.

Biomerieux said its sites in France had spare capacity.

Lionel Barrand, one of the five laboratory operators who spoke to Reuters, said the supply-chain crunch was partly rooted in France’s reliance on imported reagents. He estimated 90% of COVID-19 reagents used in France were sourced overseas.

“We depend heavily on the global market,” said Barrand, who heads a laboratory industry group, the Syndicat National des Jeunes Biologistes.

Some of the French laboratories worry that U.S. suppliers such as Cepheid and Becton Dickinson are prioritizing labs in the United States, where healthcare costs are higher and profit margins bigger.

Becton Dickinson said it allocates test kits using quotas, which are set on the basis of the number of its testing machines in a country and the severity of outbreaks.

“We do not use pricing, margins or profit as a factor in our allocations,” the company said.

(Reporting by Richard Lough; Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont; Editing by Peter Graff)

Swiss add Paris, Vienna to list of areas for coronavirus quarantine

ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland has added the regions around Paris and Vienna to its list of areas with high COVID-19 infection rates requiring incoming travelers to enter quarantine for 10 days.

The government said it was adopting a regional approach for neighboring countries for the measures which will come into force on Sept. 14. As part of this, it named Ile de France and the Vienna region as areas with a raised risk of infection.

The government also put the Czech Republic and all of Spain on its list of entire countries with a quarantine requirement, which already includes the United States,  India and Brazil.

“It is not a good idea to go to high-risk areas,” Health Minister Alain Berset told a media conference, advising Swiss travelers to steer clear of places on the list.

Switzerland, which has had quarantine restrictions since July 6, said it was responding to a spike in infection numbers in the country.

Switzerland reported 528 new cases of the coronavirus on Friday, the highest daily rise in infections since early April.

As part of its new approach, the government said only regions of neighboring countries where the infection rate is above its limit of 60 cases per 100,000 people will be added to the list, rather then the entire country.

Border regions may be exempted from the list to take into account the close interaction with neighboring regions, it said.

Thousands of workers cross Switzerland’s borders with France, Germany and Italy daily to work in Geneva, Basel and the southern canton of Ticino.

(Reporting by John Revill; Editing by Michael Shields)

Family of black Frenchman who died in police custody call for protests

PARIS (Reuters) – The family of a black Frenchman who died in police custody in circumstances similar to the killing of George Floyd in the United States spurned talks with the justice minister and called on Tuesday for more street protests instead.

Adama Traore was celebrating his 24th birthday on July 19, 2016, when three police officers used their weight to restrain him. By the time he arrived at the police station, he was unconscious and could not be revived.

Medical experts differ on whether Traore died because of the restraint or because of an underlying medical condition.

His family demands that the officers involved be held to account and thousands marched in their support in Paris last Saturday. No one has ever been charged with Traore’s death.

“We’re demanding acts of justice, not discussions” Assa Traore, Adama’s sister, told a press conference.”We’ll protest in the streets, every week, if necessary.”

The family and ‘Truth for Adama’ campaign group called for a mass protest in central Paris on Saturday.

Worldwide anger over the killing of Floyd, including in France, has given new momentum to the Traore family’s campaign. Accusations of brutality and racism against French police remain largely unaddressed, rights groups say.

France has at times fallen short in treating all people equally, a founding principle of the Republic, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said after meeting police officers in a Paris suburb. The police must also be shown respect, he added.

Describing the conditions in which Floyd died as “monstrous”, Philippe acknowledged that the worldwide outpouring of emotion “resonated with the fears and feelings of a part of the French population”.

“Collectively, we have not always necessarily been up to the challenge of the Republic’s principles.”

The government said on Monday it was banning a chokehold used to detain suspects and it promised zero tolerance for racism among police.

(Reporting by Lucien Libert and Matthieu Protard; writing by Richard Lough; editing by Nick Macfie and Gareth Jones)

Death stalks French nursing home, where corpses lie in rooms

By Lucien Libert

PARIS (Reuters) – In a nursing home in Paris, bodies have been left decomposing in bedrooms and the smell of death seeps under doors after the coronavirus spread through the overwhelmed facility, according to a care worker there.

The employee at the Jardin des Plantes home, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject, told Reuters some 30 residents – about a third of all the elderly being cared for at the facility – had died since the outbreak struck.

With the city’s undertakers swamped by the wave of COVID-19 deaths sweeping the capital, some corpses had laid in body bags for several days, the care worker said.

“The smell passes under the doors and permeates through the walls,” the care worker said.

“Families would call in the morning, and we’d tell them things were fine. By the evening their relative would be dead and we wouldn’t even have had the time to inform them,” the care worker added, describing how staff had been overrun.

The nursing home is run by Paris City Hall. A spokesman confirmed that the number of deaths had risen above the 21 initially reported on April 7, but could not give a precise figure.

City Hall had been alerted that some corpses were festering inside bedrooms, the spokesman said. Immediate measures had been taken “to limit as far as possible this situation”, he added.

The nursing home declined to comment.

All of France’s care homes are locked down, their 1 million residents in isolation on government orders and cut off from their families.

From Italy to the United States, such homes have emerged as a vulnerable frontline in the global pandemic, with COVID-19 most lethal to the elderly.

PARTIAL DATA

In France, nursing homes do not have to relay data on COVID-19 deaths to the health authorities.

The country’s death count has surged after it began including numbers supplied voluntarily from homes last week, with a third of the 12,210 COVID-19 fatalities nationwide occurring in nursing homes.

A spokeswoman for the regional ARS health authority in the greater Paris area said Jardin des Plantes was among the 40% of France’s 7,400 homes that had not passed on the information.

The care worker said that the home’s 80 staff had lacked face masks, gloves, gowns and shoe covers when the coronavirus first hit. High levels of absenteeism left workers overstretched before reinforcements arrived, including student nurses.

The nursing home declined to respond to questions about protective gear, which has been in short supply in many medical facilities and care homes across the world, particularly in the early stages of the coronavirus crisis.

The Paris City Hall spokesman said the municipality provided all its staff, including those working in homes, with masks.

Earlier this week, as the death toll inside the home rose, all of its surviving residents and staff were tested for COVID-19 after the health ministry changed its protocol.

Previously, as France ramped up testing capacity, the guidance was that the first two suspected cases be assessed.

Asked if the testing had come too late, the City Hall spokesman said the municipality was taking its cue from the ARS.

“We’re approaching the peak so this is a crucial time,” he said. “We’re not too late.”

(Additional reporting and writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Notre-Dame service a message of hope for France in coronavirus lockdown

By Dominique Vidalon

PARIS (Reuters) – Nearly a year after fire devastated Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, the city’s Archbishop held a small ceremony there to mark Good Friday, praying that Easter’s message of rebirth might bring comfort to a country stricken by the coronavirus pandemic.

Only seven people, including Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit, attended the solemn service in the apse behind Notre-Dame’s Pietà due to the nationwide lockdown across France, but many more watched on their televisions.

“A year ago, this cathedral was burning, causing bewilderment,” said Aupetit, after bowing before a relic of Christ’s crown of thorns that was famously saved from the blaze by a fireman.

“Today we are in this half-collapsed cathedral to say that life continues.”

The world had been “brought down and paralysed by a pandemic that spreads death”, Aupetit said. “As we are going to celebrate Easter, we will celebrate life which is stronger than death, love stronger than hate.”

The prized golden wreath rested on a red velvet pillow placed on an altar in front of a huge golden cross, as Aupetit led the service dressed in crimson vestments.

He and his fellow clerics wore white hard hats as they entered the cathedral, much of which remains a building site, before removing them for the service.

French actors Philippe Torreton and Judith Chemla read texts by Christian writers Charles Peguy and Paul Claudel, while classical violinist Renaud Capuçon provided musical accompaniment.

All three were clad in white jumpsuits and boots to protect them against lead poisoning after the fire left traces of the metal throughout the building.

The one-hour ceremony ended with Chemla singing “Ave Maria”.

It was the second service to have been held in the Gothic church since the April 15 fire.

On June 15, 2019, a mass to commemorate the cathedral’s consecration as a place of worship was held in a side-chapel of Notre-Dame that had been undamaged by the blaze.

The fire destroyed the mediaeval cathedral’s roof, toppled the spire and almost brought down the main bell towers and outer walls before firefighters brought it under control.

President Emmanuel Macron has set a target of five years for restoring Notre-Dame, one of Europe’s most recognisable landmarks. Restoration work has, however, been put on hold by the lockdown that began in France on March 17.

(Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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)

Nothing ruled out in probe into knife attack at Paris police headquarters

French police and firefighters are seen in front of the Paris Police headquarters in Paris, France, October 3, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

By Matthieu Protard

PARIS (Reuters) – Investigators are not ruling out any hypothesis in their probe into the fatal knife attack at the headquarters of the Paris police, authorities said on Friday.

A 45-year-old IT assistant killed three police officers and an administrative worker inside the Paris police building on Thursday before he was shot dead by an officer.

French media reported that the attacker had converted to Islam 18 months ago. Officials have not said anything about a possible motive for the attack and said they were still trying to discover if there was a terrorism link.

“No hypothesis is being ruled out at this stage,” Paris police chief Didier Lallement said at a news conference. He said he would not respond to further questions on the matter.

The attack took place on the historic Ile de la Cite island in the River Seine, close to Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral.

In the past four years, the French capital has been rocked by violent attacks resulting in mass casualties.

Co-ordinated bombings and shootings by Islamist militants in November 2015, at the Bataclan theater and other locations around Paris, killed 130 people in the deadliest attacks in France since World War Two.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Writing by Matthieu Protard, Editing by Geert De Clercq and Janet Lawrence)

Paris police employee stabs four to death in force HQ before being shot dead

By Simon Carraud and Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS (Reuters) – A police administrative worker went on a knife rampage inside the force’s headquarters on Thursday, killing four people before being shot dead by an officer, police officials said.

There was no official word on the motive for the attack, which took place in the heart of the French capital near to Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral.

But Jean-Marc Bailleul, a police union leader, described the incident as criminal rather than an act of terror. “It was a moment of madness,” Bailleul told BFM TV.

The area around the police headquarters was sealed off and the nearest metro station was shut for security reasons, the transport authority said.

President Emmanuel Macron is expected to visit the scene later on Thursday.

A police official and member of the collective “Police up in Anger”, which advocates for better conditions for officers, was quoted by franceinfo radio as saying the assailant had experienced issues with his supervisor.

“I know there were tensions between him and his direct supervisor,” Christophe Crepin told franceinfo. “I do not think this is a terrorist act.”

A police spokesman said he had no comment on the incident.

An official at the prosecutor’s anti-terrorism office said that for now, his office was not leading the investigation.

(Writing by Benoit Van Overstraeten and Christian Lowe; Editing by Hugh Lawson)