Macron to make COVID-19 address as third wave swamps French hospitals

March 31, 2021 3:19 AM EDT

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron, wearing a protective face mask, waves to journalists as he welcomes President of the Kurdistan region in Iraq Nechirvan Barzani (not seen) before a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, March 30, 2021


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By Michel Rose

PARIS (Reuters) -French President Emmanuel Macron is to address the nation on Wednesday and is expected to announce that schools will close in April as he seeks to change the course of a third wave of COVID-19 infections that risk overwhelming hospitals.

A government official said an extension of the April school holidays was an option.

An operation to transfer intensive care patients from overloaded hospitals to lesser-hit regions and a full lockdown in the hardest-hit parts of France had also been discussed, the source said.

BFM TV reported a four-week shutdown of schools was under consideration, with one week of remote learning and three weeks of holiday instead of the planned fortnight.

Macron, 43, has sought to avoid a third large lockdown since the start of the year, gambling 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 a deep slump.

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

Asked if Macron's televised address would amount to an admission that he had got the strategy wrong, government spokesman Gabriel Attal told a news briefing: "There had been successes and there have probably been mistakes. What's important is to recognise this."

Daily new infections have doubled since February to nearly 40,000. On Tuesday, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care breached 5,000, exceeding the peak hit during a six-week-long lockdown in the autumn. Thousands of school classes have been closed.

Parliament will vote on Thursday on the measures announced by Macron. "That tells you steps will be taken on a national level," the government source said.

HIT TO RECOVERY?

Stay-at-home orders risk slowing the pace of recovery in the euro zone's second-largest economy from last year's depression.

Macron's address, due at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT), weighed on the European single market's euro currency, analysts said.

France faces having to tighten measures just as neighbouring Britain slowly emerges from a lockdown imposed in early January.

"We needed a strict lockdown and huge vaccination drive earlier, but it's still not too late," Gilbert Deray, a senior clinician at the Pitie-Salpetriere hospital in Paris told Europe 1 radio.

A nationwide nightly curfew has been in place since December and restaurants, bars and cinemas have been closed for months. Ten days ago, the government shut non-essential stores and limited people's movements in Paris and other regions ravaged by the virus.

Schools have been kept open since the first lockdown ended, but Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said it was time to close them, with the virus spreading through classrooms.

Macron had hoped France's COVID-19 vaccine campaign would reduce the numbers falling gravely ill. But the vaccine rollout is only now finding its stride three months in, with just 12% of the population inoculated.

Warm weather drew crowds onto the banks of the Seine and the Riviera's beaches. Mobility data analysed by Reuters showed the existing measures were having markedly less impact than prior lockdowns, reflecting the tough reality facing Macron.

(Reporting by Michel Rose, Benoit Van Overstraeten and Antony Paone; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by William Maclean and Janet Lawrence)



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