'Encouraging' situation in France sees gradual easing of Covid restrictions

·3 min read

French Prime Minister Jean Castex and health minister Olivier Véran have set out a timetable for a gradual lifting of Covid-19 rules and restrictions in the coming weeks. Despite recording an average of nearly 310,000 daily cases over the past week, the government is keen to show optimism that the fifth wave will peak soon.

The press conference comes on the heels of a cabinet meeting on the health crisis earlier on Thursday.

The highly contagious Omicron variant has sparked a surge in infections -- on Tuesday, France posted a record 464,769 new cases in a 24-hour period -- but the number of Covid patients in intensive care has been falling since early January to around 3,850 people currently.

Taking this as an encouraging sign, the government has begun to anticipate an easing of restrictions in the coming weeks.

"We have seen an exceptional wave, with at least five million people who have contracted the Omicron variant," Castex noted, adding that despite this, an "encouraging evolution" in the situation was occurring.

"We have seen that incidence rates are still rising, but we also know that the Omicron variant results in fewer serious cases than the Delta variant."

He warned that despite this, Omicron was none the less still a concern and the lifting of restrictions would need to be gradual, in two main phases:

24 January:

  • Castex said the vaccine pass, which replaces the health pass, will come in to effect next Monday, 24 January, provided it gets approved by the Constitutional Council.This will be mandatory for people over 16 entering restaurants, cinemas, museums, transport and other public venues. Previously a recent negative Covid test could also be used to obtain the pass for unvaccinated people.

  • 12-17 year olds will also be eligible for a booster jab of the vaccine from this date. Until now, only people with fragile health in this age group were priority for the third dose.

2 February:

  • Working from home will also no longer be required for eligible employees from 2 February. The French government had urged people to work-from-home for three days a week, if possible, but Castex said this guidance would be dropped and work-from-home would now be at the discretion of individuals and companies.

  • Masks will no longer be mandatory outdoors from this date.

  • Indoor venues will be able to fill to maximum capacity. Masks will remain mandatory.

16 February:

  • Eating or drinking will again be authorised in theatres, sporting venues, bars, cinemas and public transport.

  • Nightclubs will be allowed to reopen

  • Standing at concerts, sporting matches and other events will be allowed.

Castex said easing of measures in schools, such as mask wearing, would also be considered following the end of the winter break at the beginning of March.

The prime minister added that the vaccine pass could even be suspended, if the Covid-19 situation improved dramatically.

In terms of vaccination rates, Castex said although major efforts had been made, it was important to keep up the pace.

"Since the announcement of the vaccine pass, more than one million people who were not vaccinated have stepped up for their first jab. This is good but it's not yet enough," he said, adding that more centres would be made available for children 5-11 who had not been able to get an appointment.

Studies have indicated that Omicron is less dangerous than other virus variants, fuelling hope that authorities will be able to ease social distancing and face mask rules for populations desperate for a return to normality.

The British government said Wednesday that most restrictions would be lifted starting next week, including the requirement for a Covid pass proving vaccination to enter public venues, citing data that showed infections had peaked.

But World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus insisted this week that the pandemic was "nowhere near over", warning that new variants were still likely to emerge.

(with wires)

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