Protests in France against COVID-19 ‘health pass’ rules

PARIS (Reuters) -Police in Paris clashed with protesters railing against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to require a COVID-19 vaccine certificate or negative PCR test to gain entry to bars, restaurants and cinemas from next month.

Macron this week announced sweeping measures to fight a rapid surge in new coronavirus infections, including the mandatory vaccination of health workers and new health pass rules for the wider public.

In doing so, he went further than most other European nations have done as the highly contagious Delta variant fans a new wave of cases, and other governments are watching carefully to see how the French public responds.

The police fired tear gas on several occasions as pockets of protesters overturned garbage cans and set a mechanical digger alight. Some protesters away from the skirmishes wore badges saying “No to the health pass”.

Some critics of Macron’s plan – which will require shopping malls, cafes, bars and restaurants to check the health passes of all patrons from August – accuse the president of trampling on freedoms and discriminating against those who do not want the COVID shot.

“It’s totally arbitrary and wholly undemocratic,” said one protester who identified himself as Jean-Louis.

Macron says the vaccine is the best way to put France back on the path to normalcy and that he is encouraging as many people as possible to get inoculated.

There were protests in other cities including Nantes, Marseille and Montpellier.

The show of discontent took place on Bastille Day, the anniversary of the 1789 storming of a medieval fortress in Paris which marked the turning point in the French Revolution.

Among other proposals in the government’s draft bill is the mandatory isolation for 10 days of anyone who tests positive, with police making random checks, French media reported. The prime minister’s office did not respond when asked to confirm the detail.

(Reporting by Christian Lowe and Gonzalo Fuentes; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Sandra Maler)

Pressuring junta, France suspends joint military operations with Malian forces

By Tangi Salaün

PARIS (Reuters) -France said on Thursday it was suspending its joint military operations with local troops in Mali as part of efforts to pressure the military junta there to restore a civilian-led government.

Mali’s military arrested interim President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane last week and pressured them to resign, derailing a transition to democratic elections after another military coup last August.

Former vice president Assimi Goita, a colonel who led the August coup and last week’s revolt, was declared president on Friday.

West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the African Union have suspended Mali from their organizations and threatened sanctions.

“Pending these guarantees, France, after informing its partners and the Malian authorities, has decided to suspend, as a precaution and temporarily, joint military operations with the Malian forces, as well as national advisory missions that benefit them,” the Armed Forces Ministry said in a statement.

French forces will continue to operate in the country separately and the decision will be reassessed in the coming days, it added.

A spokesman for the Malian army declined to comment on what he termed a political matter.

France, the former colonial power, has more than 5,000 troops waging counter-insurgency operations against Islamist militants in Mali and the wider Sahel, an arid region of West Africa just below the Sahara desert.

Militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have strengthened their foothold across the region, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.

While France has hailed some success in recent months, the situation is extremely fragile and Paris has increasingly grown frustrated with no end in sight to its operations.

Speaking to the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday the latest power grab by the junta and any sign it plans to negotiate with Islamist militants could lead to a French withdrawal.

“I passed them the message that I would not stay alongside a country where there is no longer democratic legitimacy or transition,” he was quoted as saying.

(Reporting by Tangi Salaun in Paris; Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Paul Lorgerie in BamakoWriting by John Irish; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Matthew Lewis)

France’s Macron charts way out of third COVID-19 lockdown

By Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) -France will start relaxing a nightly curfew and allow cafes, bars and restaurants to offer outside service from May 19, as President Emmanuel Macron charts a way out of a third COVID-19 lockdown.

Macron, who is under pressure from business groups and a COVID-weary public to open up the economy again, announced in an interview with the regional papers a four-phase plan for unwinding France’s month-long stay-at-home order.

The easing will come despite the numbers of new daily cases and COVID-19 patients being treated in intensive care being far higher than when the two previous lockdowns were rolled back. Macron said the vaccine rollout made this possible.

“I have never gambled on the health and safety of our citizens,” Macron said. “I take responsibility for the choices I make, but these are never bets.”

The plan envisages the nightly curfew being pushed back to 2100 from 1900 CET from May 19 and to 2300 from June 9, before being scrapped completely on June 30.

Museums, cinemas and theatres will also be allowed to reopen on May 19. Foreign tourists with a “health pass” will be allowed to visit France again from June 9, according to the timetable published by Ouest France and other newspapers.

The timetable is provisional and could be delayed on a region-by-region basis in areas where intensive care units are close to saturation or the COVID-19 incidence rate exceeds 400 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

‘EMERGENCY BRAKE’

“We will be able to pull an emergency brake in territories where the virus is too present,” Macron said.

The incidence rate in Paris and its surrounds was an average 459 per 100,000 people in the seven days up to April 25 and is falling, data showed. Ile de France is home to nearly a fifth of France’s population and accounts for 30% of economic activity.

About 22% of all French citizens have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a Reuters tracker.

Accelerating the rollout in France, Europe and in developing countries is paramount to push back against the virus, Macron said.

Opening up the vaccine to more people in France, Macron said COVID shots would be made available to all obese adults from May 1.

Macron said France could use a digital or paper-based ‘health pass’ to help curb the spread of the virus at events with large crowds such as sport stadia or festivals. But he said it would not be right to use them at everyday venues like restaurants or cinemas.

“A health pass will never be a right of access that differentiates the French,” the president said. “As it pertains to public liberties, parliament will debate the matter.”

France’s main COVID-19 indicators all showed some signs of improvement on Wednesday, with the seven-day moving average of daily new infections falling to 27,366 compared with 38,000 when the lockdown began.

France has recorded 5.57 million COVID-19 cases and 103,947 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Gareth Jones and Sonya Hepinstall)

France kicks off Europe’s vaccine donations to poorer states

PARIS (Reuters) – France will donate an initial 100,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID vaccine to developing countries this month, the first European Union member to send its own supplies to the COVAX initiative for poorer countries, an official said on Wednesday.

French President Emmanuel Macron has urged EU countries to send 5% of their own vaccine supplies to developing countries to hamper the development of new variants and stop Russia and China from gaining a diplomatic advantage by sharing their shots.

“France will inaugurate the European vaccine sharing mechanism with COVAX,” an adviser to Macron said on Wednesday. “We very much hope that other countries will commit to physically sharing vaccines with COVAX.”

The COVAX facility, backed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), aims to secure 2 billion vaccine doses for lower-income countries by the end of 2021.

In March, it said the target was to deliver 237 million doses of AstraZeneca’s shot to 142 countries by the end of May, and it also shipped its first Pfizer shots.

French officials have expressed concern that developed countries around the globe, which are rushing to vaccinate their own population, have only committed cash to COVAX and refrained from sending doses from their own reserves.

France has committed to sending 500,000 doses by mid-June, the French adviser said. The first batch of AstraZeneca doses, taken from France’s own expected deliveries, will be sent to COVAX “imminently,” the adviser said.

(Reporting by Michel Rose; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

France sees biggest jump in COVID-19 intensive care patients in months

PARIS (Reuters) – France reported on Friday that 5,254 people were in intensive care units with COVID-19, an increase of 145 people in one day and the highest daily increase in five months.

New confirmed cases also jumped by the highest week-on-week rate since the end of November, when France was in its second nationwide lockdown.

The ministry reported 46,677 new cases, 6.2% more than a week ago, taking the total to 4.74 million cases.

For months, the government tried to contain the epidemic with a curfew and regional confinement measures. But faced with a rapidly-growing case count and pressure on the hospital system, President Emmanuel Macron ordered a new nationwide lockdown, starting next week.

France on Friday also reported 332 new deaths from COVID-19, taking the toll to 96,280, but the new death tally included only 32 deaths in retirement care homes over three days.

Death rates in retirement homes, which were several hundreds per week at the end of 2021, have dropped off sharply as the government focused its vaccination campaign on the elderly.

The health ministry reported on Friday that 12.13 million people had received a vaccine shot so far, including just over three million second doses and more than nine million first doses.

The nine million first doses amount to 13.6% of the population and 17.3% of the adult population.

By mid-April, the government will make vaccination available to people over 60.

(Reporting by Matthieu Protard and Geert De Clercq; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Macron orders COVID-19 lockdown across all of France, closes schools

By Sudip Kar-Gupta and Geert De Clercq

PARIS (Reuters) -President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday ordered France into its third national lockdown and said schools would close for three weeks as he sought to push back a third wave of COVID-19 infections that threatens to overwhelm hospitals.

With the death toll nearing 100,000, intensive care units in the hardest-hit regions at breaking point and a slower-than-planned vaccine rollout, Macron was forced to abandon his goal of keeping the country open to protect the economy.

“We will lose control if we do not move now,” the president said in a televised address to the nation.

His announcement means that movement restrictions already in place for more than a week in Paris, and some northern and southern regions, will now apply to the whole country for at least a month, from Saturday.

Departing from his pledge to safeguard education from the pandemic, Macron said schools will close for three weeks after this weekend.

Macron, 43, has sought to avoid a third large-scale lockdown since the start of the year, betting that if he could steer France out of the pandemic without locking the country down again he would give the economy a chance to recover from last year’s slump.

But the former investment banker’s options narrowed as more contagious strains of the coronavirus swept across France and much of Europe.

For school-children after this weekend, learning will be done remotely for a week, after which all schools go on a two-week holiday. Thereafter, nursery and primary pupils will return to school while middle and high school pupils continue distance learning for an extra week.

“It is the best solution to slow down the virus,” Macron said, adding that France had succeeded in keeping its schools open for longer during the pandemic than many neighbors.

Daily new infections in France have doubled since February to nearly 40,000. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care has breached 5,000, exceeding the peak hit during a six-week-long lockdown late last year.

Bed capacity in critical care units will be increased to 10,000, Macron said.

The new restrictions risk slowing the pace of recovery in the euro zone’s second-largest economy from last year’s slump.

Macron said the vaccine rollout needed to be accelerated. It is only now finding its stride three months in, with just 12% of the population inoculated.

(Additional reporting by Michel Rose and Jean-Stephane Brosse; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Christian Lowe)

COVID curbs having less impact at keeping Parisians at home: data

By Caroline Pailliez and Leigh Thomas

PARIS (Reuters) – The French government’s anti-COVID-19 measures are having half the impact in encouraging Parisians to stay at home as the restrictions in France’s first lockdown, data shows, underscoring why epidemiologists say the curbs are too weak to stop a third wave of infection over-running hospitals.

Google data shows residents in the capital, the epicenter of a fast-spreading third wave of infections, are spending just 20% more time at home than during pre-crisis times, compared with 40% during the strict three-month lockdown last spring.

The data reflects the tough reality confronting President Emmanuel Macron, who, according to one source close to the government, will have to decide on Wednesday whether to resort once again to a draconian lockdown that risks upending economic activity.

“We have to limit the spread of the virus and we won’t do that with these half-measures,” said Gilles Pialoux, head of infectious diseases at the Tenon hospital in Paris.

The government closed some non-essential stores and limited how far people could travel, adding to a nationwide nightly curfew, in the hardest hit regions on March 20.

While Apple Maps data shows a slight fall in journeys made by car, public transport or on foot, people remain on the move more than during either the spring or autumn lockdowns.

To be sure, part of this is by design. Macron wants to keep the euro zone’s second largest economy open and allow citizens to spend time outdoors. But it also underlines the extent to which government appeals for people to voluntarily restrict their movements are falling on deaf ears.

Intensive care wards are reaching breaking point. In Paris, there are now more COVID-19 patients in ICUs than at the peak of the second wave in November, and critical care wards are operating at 140% of normal bed capacity.

‘CRUSH THE VIRUS’

Macron will convene his COVID-19 war room on Wednesday at a time the surge in coronavirus infections is dragging the death count towards the 100,000 threshold.

The president has this year repeatedly sought to avoid another lockdown, counting on COVID-19 vaccines to reduce the numbers falling gravely ill.

But the vaccine rollout is only now hitting its stride, with about 12% of the population inoculated after three months. Meanwhile, the science shows a vaccinated person can still transmit the virus and it will not be until late summer before all adults have been offered a shot.

“You absolutely first have to crush the virus’ prevalence,” said Philippe Amouyel, head of epidemiology at Lille Hospital, “then afterwards comes the vaccine.”

A full-blown lockdown would entail closing schools and prohibiting people from leaving their home other than for essential reasons such as buying groceries, seeking medical help and exercise.

No decision has yet been taken, a government source said.

If a strict lockdown was imposed across France, the number of intensive care patients in the Paris region would peak at about 3,470 on April 22, according to Paris hospital trust forecasts that Reuters has seen.

If the decision was delayed by one week, that number would rise to 4,470 on April 29, the model predicts. During the first wave, ICU admissions peaked at 2,668.

Police unions told Reuters a full lockdown would be easier to enforce than the unwieldy array of rules now in place.

Last weekend crowds thronged the banks of the Seine in Paris. Police urged picnickers to sit apart but there was little evidence of checks being made on whether people had travelled further than the permitted 10 km (6.2 miles) to be there.

“We see that people now have a little less respect for the rules,” said Denis Jacob of the CFDT union’s police branch. “But it’s very difficult to enforce this set of rules.”

(Reporting by Caroline Pailliez and Leigh Thomas; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

‘No light at the end of the tunnel’ – The COVID-19 battle in one French hospital

By Pascal ROSSIGNOL

CAMBRAI, France (Reuters) – Anesthetist Caroline Tesse cannot say whether the third wave of COVID-19 infections sweeping across France will peak in three weeks or three months. But she does know that it is too late to prevent the virus from overwhelming her intensive care unit.

All bar one of the ward’s 22 beds is occupied by a COVID-19 patient. The moment a bed is freed, another gravely ill patient is wheeled in – and as the B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in Britain, tightens its grip, they are arriving younger and sicker.

“What’s difficult is not having any light at the end of the tunnel,” said Tesse, a 35-year-old mother-of-three for whom the intensity of the latest surge in coronavirus infections is taking a toll at home and in the workplace.

Cambrai in northern France lies in one of the hardest hit areas of the country. Some 450 in every 100,000 people are testing positive and the rate is climbing.

On the ICU ward, the pace is relentless. Adryen Bisiau, a doctor on Tesse’s unit, described the latest spike as “the toughest wave we’ve endured so far”.

President Emmanuel Macron tightened COVID-19 restrictions in much of northern France and the Paris region a week ago, but he stopped short of a full lockdown that many hospitals had been calling for.

Strict confinements and school closures should be an act of last resort, Macron and his government say. But on the front line in the battle to save lives, that moment has for many passed.

“I don’t think the latest measures can stem the spread,” Tesse said after a delicate procedure to intubate yet another patient. “It’s too late.”

“We can’t even tell how long this wave will last.”

After a European Union summit at which leaders agreed to stricter export controls on vaccines, Macron on Thursday defended his decision not to impose a third lockdown as early as January.

“I have no mea culpa to make, no regrets,” the president said.

(Reporting by Pascal Rossignol; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

COVID-19 situation in Paris area extremely tense: French PM

PARIS (Reuters) – The COVID-19 situation in the Paris region is extremely tense and authorities are ready to take new measures, French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Friday, but he did not announce a tightening of curfew or new regional lockdowns.

Despite rising COVID-19 cases, the administration of President Emmanuel Macron has not to date declared a new national lockdown, opting instead to tighten measures locally in hard-hit towns like Nice and Dunkirk, but Paris has been spared so far.

“I call on everyone, and especially those who live in the capital, to be extremely careful, wear the mask and respect social distancing. The aim is to reduce the pressure on the hospital system,” Castex said during a visit to a hospital.

The number of people with COVID-19 in intensive care units on Friday exceeded 4,000 for the first time since Nov. 26, with nearly 1,100 COVID-19 patients in ICUs in the Paris region alone.

In Paris and the surrounding region, healthcare managers say the intensive care units are close to being overloaded.

Castex said that in the Ile-de-France region around Paris the vaccination campaign would be sped up this weekend, with the delivery of 25,000 extra doses.

France’s vaccination program has been hampered by logistical bottlenecks and problems with deliveries from vaccine manufacturers but Castex said the campaign was speeding up, with 320,326 shots administered on Friday, a new record.

As of Friday, 7.04 million people – more than one tenth of the French population — had been vaccinated, official figures showed, including 2.22 million second injections.

(Reporting by GV De Clercq; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Kirsten Donovan)

France’s new COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU treatments rise sharply

PARIS (Reuters) – The number of people hospitalized in France for COVID-19 rose by more than a 1,000 over the last two days, a trend unseen since Nov 16, and the number of patients in intensive care units for the disease exceeded 3,000 for the first time since Dec 9.

A growing number of medical experts have called for a third lockdown in France but French media report that President Emmanuel Macron is trying to avoid such a measure.

Macron hopes a 6 p.m. curfew put in place 10 days ago will be enough to rein in the surge in new infections prompted by the emergence of more contagious variants of the virus.

Getting the number of patients treated in ICUs for COVID-19 below the 3,000 limit was the main justification for replacing the second lockdown with the national curfew on Dec 15.

At 3,041, the ICU total is less than half its all time high of 7,148 on April 4, but has grown almost every day since Jan 7.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Bloomberg Television that a new lockdown would make it very difficult for the country to reach its 2021 target of 6% economic growth.

The government had also aimed to bring the average new daily cases below 5,000 before lifting the second lockdown. After a 54,440 high on Nov 7, the seven-day moving average of daily new infections, which averages out reporting irregularities, fell to 10,348 on Dec 4 but is now at a two-month high of 20,447.

The daily tally of new COVID infections was 4,240 on Monday, down from Sunday’s 18,346 but higher than last Monday’s 3,736. France’s cumulative total of cases now stands at 3,057,857, the sixth-highest in the world.

The country’s COVID-19 death toll was up by 445, at 73,494, the world’s seventh highest, versus a rise of 172 on Sunday. The seven-day moving average of new fatalities increased to 401, the highest since Dec. 9.

(Reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Philippa Fletcher)