France will unveil within two weeks a plan to progressively lift restrictions on travel and business that aim to curb the coronavirus epidemic, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Sunday.
After May 11, when the lockdown starts to get lifted, “our lives won’t be exactly the same as before,” Philippe said in a televised press conference. “Not right away, and probably not before long.”
Countries across Europe are considering how to lift the most severe restrictions, as a slowdown in new cases and fewer occupied hospital beds indicate the crisis may be abating. Germany will allow some smaller stores to start serving customers again this week, while schools will gradually reopen in early May.
France has been on lockdown since March 17, and President Emmanuel Macron told the nation on Monday that confinement measures would be extended to May 11. Philippe declined to provide specifics on the plan to end the lockdown.
The country’s statistics agency estimates that social-distancing measures, school and store closures and restrictions on movement have shut down 35% of the economy. Moving to moderate containment from full lockdown could lift economic output by about 20%, according to a rough estimate by Bloomberg Economics.
The current lockdown could lead Europe’s third-biggest economy to contract by about 10% in 2020, Philippe said. That’s more than the 8% projection given by Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire on April 14.
“The goal of the government at this time is to save what can be saved now in order to rebound tomorrow. We have to make sure to not lose our productive base,” Philippe said as he detailed France’s arsenal to keep the frozen economy afloat “amid the strongest recession since 1945.”
“When the crisis is over, we need to think about a recovery plan,” he added.
Living With the Virus
Ending the lockdown period will depend on the circulation of the virus, and capacity at French hospitals, Philippe said. As of now, 10 infected people only infect 6 others on average, according to the prime minister.
“We’ll have to learn how to live with the virus,” he said, adding that no vaccine would be available before 2021, “maybe even later.”
“This leaves us with one instrument: Prevention.” This includes social-distancing measures and isolating virus-carriers at their homes, or at hotels. Wearing a mask could become mandatory in public transport, and the prime minister encouraged employees to keep working remotely.
Cafes and restaurants are unlikely to re-open soon, while long-distance travel post-lockdown may not be possible for quite some time.
“The conditions to enter and re-enter national territory will be demanding,” he said. He also said it might not be reasonable to hold weddings and parties anytime soon.
Philippe repeatedly praised the French for respecting the guidelines on confinement, presenting maps showing how the epidemics would have spread without the lockdown — painting the grim picture of a country overwhelmed by the pandemic. “Confinement worked,” the prime minister said.
Macron’s approval rating slipped 1 point in April to 42%, after jumping 11 points in March to the highest in almost two years, according to an Ifop opinion poll for Le Journal du Dimanche. Philippe’s approval rating rose 2 points to 44% in April, the highest since May 2018.
France has been increasing testing for the virus, and has mobilized its industrial companies to produce everything from surgical masks to ventilator replacement parts and visors to protect health-care workers.
France is close to becoming the fourth country to report more than 20,000 deaths from the virus, behind the U.S., Italy and Spain. Still, falling numbers for patients in hospitals and in intensive care are positive signs.
The number of patients in intensive care, an indicator of the outbreak’s intensity and its impact on the country’s hospital system, fell for an 11th day Sunday. The number of daily deaths increased at its slowest pace in three weeks and the country also posted the smallest increase in new infections in almost a month, with fewer than 2,000 new infections.
The prime minister said France had successfully ordered more masks, and would be able to distribute them to a wider group of people in the next few weeks. Macron’s government has been criticized for initially dismissing the need for masks in the general population.
France also plans to test 500,000 patients with symptoms a week by May 11, from 150,000 currently according to Health Minister Olivier Veran. There will be a total of 30,000 respiratory-assistance machines by end-June, he also said. Restrictions will be progressively eased in nursing homes, which have suffered badly in the pandemic, to allow visits.
Worldwide, cases now exceed 2.3 million, while more than 161,000 people have died from the coronavirus.