Health

France sticks by lockdown easing plan despite mayors forced march concerns

Issued on: 04/05/2020 – 20:00Modified: 04/05/2020 – 20:01

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe on Monday stood by a plan to begin easing the country's coronavirus lockdown May 11 despite concerns the government is moving too fast to reopen schools as well as doubts over the availability of face masks.

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France is due to emerge on May 11 from a lockdown that began March 17 to combat the coronavirus, with kindergartens and primary schools to re-open as part of a staggered easing process.

"This confinement was necessary to meet the emergency, but its social and economic cost is colossal," Philippe told senators while laying out his government's strategy.

"We're at a decisive moment, we cannot remain in confinement," he said. "Economic life must resume imperatively and quickly."

But officials have drawn fire from critics who say the country is not ready to cope with the strict social distancing and other protective measures that will be required after May 11 to avoid a flare-up of the epidemic.

France's Covid-19 death toll topped 25,000 on Monday with 306 people dying from the disease in 24 hours, according to health officials. The number of hospitalisations and ICU admissions has been falling in France for more than two weeks.

In a symbolic display of its objection, the French Senate on Monday evening voted against the plan in an 89-81 vote with 174 abstentions.

Paris area mayors slam 'forced march'

On Sunday, more than 300 mayors from the greater Paris region, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, penned an open letter to President Emmanuel Macron urging him to delay school returns, saying they need more time for the vast reorganisation of classrooms and daily routines.

Among the myriad new measures is a limit of just 15 students per class, which could require teachers to ensure distance learning for those unable to come to school.

"Preparations for the end of the lockdown are being imposed at a forced march, even though we still lack the necessary information," the mayors wrote.

Officials in other regions — in particular the hard-hit northeastern quarter of France — have also said they will not open up schools next week.

But Philippe said the school closures had been a "catastrophe for the most vulnerable children and adolescents", adding that academic failure and dropouts risked becoming a "time bomb".

In a shift from last week, however, he said face masks would be required for secondary students only in cases where sufficient social distancing cannot be ensured.

Macron said final details of the post-lockdown plan would be unveiled Thursday, adding that he "understood all the worries".

Lifting the lockdown is "an indispensable step" but "it's not a return to normal", he said, while announcing that France would contribute €500 million to the international hunt for a vaccine.

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