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)

France cranks up vaccine rollout to deliver shots faster

By Dominique Vidalon and Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS (Reuters) -France is stepping up its COVID-19 vaccine rollout by widening further its first target group to include more health workers and simplifying a cumbersome process to deliver jabs more quickly, Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Tuesday.

France’s inoculation campaign got off to a slow start, hampered in part by red tape and President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to tread warily in one of the most vaccine-skeptical countries in the world.

But France has fallen behind neighbors such as Britain and Germany, and the president is now demanding the vaccination program be expedited.

Veran told RTL radio that the government was going to “accelerate and simplify our vaccination strategy”.

Some 300 vaccination centers would be operational from next week, the minister said, after initially ruling out such centers.

The original plan had been for the first phase of the vaccine rollout, which began in France on Dec. 27, to focus on nursing home residents and their carers. By the end of the first week, France had delivered just over 500 COVID-19 shots.

Over the weekend, the first hospital staff began receiving the vaccine. The government has now added paramedics and health workers to the first target group.

By the end of January, France will have begun vaccinating people aged 75 and above who are living at home, Veran said.

The head of the union of pharmacies – whose ubiquitous network helps administer millions of flu jabs every year – urged the government to allow it to do the same for COVID-19 shots.

“If we only rely on vaccination centers, we can be sure the level of vaccination by June will be mediocre. That would be a disaster,” Gilles Bonnefond of the USPO pharmacists’ union told, Reuters in an interview. “We can be operational in a week.”

The coronavirus has claimed the lives of 65,415 people in France, the seventh-highest death toll in the world.

France received an initial 500,000 doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech and was due to receive an additional 500,000 per week. It will also get 500,000 doses per month of Moderna’s vaccine once it obtains regulatory approval in Europe and France.

MORE JABS

Rules demanding that only a doctor or a nurse under the direct supervision of a doctor inject the vaccine will be eased. Veran said a doctor would be allowed to supervise multiple nurses at any one time in a vaccination center.

Similarly, rules requiring that any person wanting a COVID-19 vaccine must hold a consultation with a doctor first would also be made simpler.

Veran also said about 10 to 15 cases of the new variant of the coronavirus first seen in Britain had been detected in France. Its rapid spread through southern England compelled British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to announce a third nationwide lockdown on Monday.

France remains under nightly curfew. Restaurants, bars, museums and cinemas are still closed. Veran said he hoped France would be able to open its ski resorts for the February holidays, but that such a move would depend on how active the virus was.

(Reporting by Dominique Vidalon, Sudip Kar-Gupta and Michel Rose; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Ed Osmond, Raissa Kasolowsky and Alex Richardson)

France may delay unwinding COVID lockdown as downward trend in cases levels off – sources

PARIS (Reuters) – France may have to delay unwinding some COVID lockdown restrictions next week after signs the downward trend in new cases has flattened out after shops were allowed to reopen late last month, two government sources said.

France’s health minister earlier told lawmakers that daily new COVID-19 infections were unlikely to fall to a 5,000 target by Dec. 15, BFM TV reported.

President Emmanuel Macron previously said the threshold was one condition for lifting the lockdown and imposing a nightly curfew, allowing cinemas and museums to reopen and ending the need for people to carry sworn affidavits outside their homes.

Another condition was for the number in intensive care to fall below 3,000. While that threshold may be met, the downward trend in new cases has plateaued at between 10,000 and 12,000.

“That the numbers have levelled off is not good news,” one government source said.

A second government source said that there was link between shops reopening on Nov. 28 ahead of Black Friday and the stagnant numbers, adding that it was imperative not to allow people to become complacent.

“We will not go as far as we would like on Dec. 15th,” the second official said.

A health ministry spokesman did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

Eric Caumes, head of infectious diseases at Paris hospital La Pitié-Salpêtrière, told LCI television that if the French were careless over Christmas and year-end holidays there would be a third wave of the virus in mid-January.

“No, I do not think this target can be reached as the trend downward stopped, it is stabilizing. So it will be difficult to reach that target,” Caumes said.

Health authorities reported 11,022 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Sunday, down from the 12,923 new infections detected the previous day.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Michel Rose, and Dominique Vidalon; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Ed Osmond and Nick Macfie)

Vienna gunman rampaged alone, intelligence was fumbled: Austrian minister

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Large quantities of mobile phone footage have confirmed that the jihadist who killed four people in a rampage in Vienna on Monday was the only gunman, but Austria fumbled intelligence on him, Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said on Wednesday.

Austria arrested 14 people aged 18 to 28 on Tuesday in connection with the attack and is investigating them on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization, he said. But it would also have to investigate its own actions, he added.

“Before the terror attack began, according to the information currently available, some things also went wrong,” Nehammer told a news conference.

In July, neighboring Slovakia’s intelligence service had handed over information suggesting the attacker had tried and failed to buy ammunition there, Nehammer and a top ministry official, Director General for Public Security Franz Ruf, said.

“In the next steps evidently something went wrong here with communications,” said Nehammer, who called for the formation of an independent commission to examine the errors made.

After receiving the tip-off from Slovakia, Austria’s domestic intelligence agencies at the federal and provincial level made the necessary checks and sent questions back to Bratislava, Ruf said.

“It’s up to the commission to clarify whether the process went optimally and in line with the law,” he said when pressed on what had gone wrong.

The gunman, who was shot dead by police within minutes of opening fire on crowded bars on Monday evening, was a 20-year-old with dual Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship. Born and raised in Vienna, he had already been convicted of trying to reach Syria to join Islamic State and had spent time in jail.

All of those arrested in Austria have a “migration background”, Nehammer said. Vienna police chief Gerhard Puerstl added that some were dual citizens of Bangladesh, North Macedonia, Turkey or Russia.

Neutral Austria, part of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS formed in 2014, has for years seen jihadist attacks as its biggest security threat and warned of the danger posed by foreign fighters returning from Iraq or Syria or their admirers.

At the end of 2018, the authorities knew of 320 people from Austria who were actively involved or had wanted to participate in jihad in Syria and Iraq. Of these, around 58 people were thought to have died in the region and 93 to have returned to Austria. Another 62 were prevented from leaving the country.

Nehammer repeated criticism of a deradicalization program, saying the gunman had “perfectly” fooled the program to reintegrate jihadists into society.

LONE GUNMAN

Members of the public had handed in more than 20,000 mobile phone videos that the authorities analyzed before coming to the conclusion that there was only one gunman, Nehammer said, putting an end to lingering confusion on that point.

Switzerland has also arrested two men in connection with the attack. Its justice minister said the two were “obviously friends” with the gunman.

Ruf said Austria was in contact with Switzerland and another country that he declined to identify over the investigation.

North Macedonia said on Tuesday three people were somehow involved in the attack and all had dual Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship. It identified them only by initials.

Monday’s attack drew international expressions of support for Austria, which had been spared the deadly militant attacks that have hit other European countries in the past decade.

President Emmanuel Macron of France, which has suffered two deadly attacks recently amid Islamist anger over the publication of satirical caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad, will visit Vienna next Monday, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s office said.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Additional reporting by Michael Shields; Writing by Michael Shields and Francois Murphy; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones)

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)