France may have to delay unwinding COVID-19 lockdown as cases plateau

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.

FILE PHOTO: Medical staff members work in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) where patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are treated at the Pasteur hospital in Nice, France, November 27, 2020. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

France was far from hauling the number of daily new infections down to a target 5,000 and the risk of a rebound in the European Union’s second-biggest economy remained high, Jerome Salomon, the health ministry’s top official, said.

The 5,000 threshold was an early condition of President Emmanuel Macron for replacing the lockdown with 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 a 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, adding that the government would consider options such as not reopening theatres and cinemas as planned on Dec. 15 as well as introducing an earlier curfew than the 9 p.m. one initially envisaged.

France may serve as a cautionary tale to other European countries that are either unwinding lockdowns or working out how to ease restrictions ahead of the Christmas holidays.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told party colleagues on Monday that existing lockdown curbs - with bars and restaurants closed and shops admitting limited numbers, as in France - were too little to bring the virus under control.

Salomon said the next few days would be critical, when asked if it would be premature to further ease lockdown rules next week.

“We are facing a powerful wave,” he told reporters.

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.

The number of people hospitalised for the disease in France increased for the second day - the first time it has done so in three weeks.

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