France announces soft new virus restrictions in Paris region

PARIS (AP) — The French government backed off on Thursday from ordering a tough lockdown for Paris and several other regions despite an increasingly alarming situation at hospitals with a rise in the numbers of COVID-19 patients. Instead, the prime minister announced a patchwork of new restrictions while reducing the national curfew by one hour.

Getting large doses of fresh air is being encouraged, meaning that people living in the Paris region and in the north of the country can walk as long as they like in a day, but within a 10-kilometre radius of their homes and with a paper authorising the stroll. Stores, however, will feel the pinch with all non-essential outlets — but not bookshops — closing down. And travel between regions is forbidden without a compelling reason.

Nothing will change at schools, which are to remain open, but sports activities will now be allowed.

Prime Minister Jean Castex announced the new rules, which will take effect today and last for at least four weeks. He referred to “massive new measures” to “slow down (the virus) without locking down people”.

“I also know the deep wish of many of you to enjoy the outdoors, since the crisis has gone on for one year and Spring is coming,” Castex said.

French President Emmanuel Macron, French Health Minister Olivier Veran and Chief of Intensive Care Unit Dr Jan Hayon listen to staff working in the intensive care ward of the Poissy/Saint-Germain-en-Laye hospital in Paris. PHOTO: AP

He also announced that the French would be able to get inoculated with the AstraZeneca vaccine — and that he himself will be getting a shot “to show we can have complete confidence”. Castex is making for himself an exception to the age rule, moving to the front of the line of those awaiting vaccinations, currently reserved for people 75 and older or with serious health concerns.

France and some other countries briefly suspended use of the vaccine over fears of blood clots, and are resuming it after the European Medicines Agency gave its green light earlier on Thursday.

Castex said France faces a “third wave” of the pandemic, with three-quarters of new cases from the more contagious variant that originated in Britain, and more patients who are younger and in better health.

“The situation is deteriorating,” he said.

The Paris region has an infection rate of 446 out of 100,000 inhabitants — up more than 23 per cent in a week — Castex said, and intensive care units are close to saturation. Northern France has an incidence rate of 381 in 100,000. France’s nationwide infection rate is about 250 per 100,000.