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France announces ‘progressive and controlled’ lockdown exit plan

France and Spain have announced detailed roadmaps for gradual, phased exits from their strict coronavirus lockdowns, with restrictions to be loosened progressively and varying from region to region.

The French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, told parliament the decision to confine the population to their homes six weeks ago had saved 62,000 lives but it was now time to start lifting the lockdown to avoid economic collapse.

“We are going to have to learn to live with Covid-19 and to protect ourselves from it,” he said. “It is a fine line that must be followed. A little too much carelessness, and the epidemic restarts. A little too much caution, and the entire country sinks.”

Philippe warned that since some parts of the country had been hit far harder than others, lockdown measures would be lifted by area, with départements classified as red, orange or green depending on their infection level.

And if infection rates did not continue to fall as expected over the coming fortnight, the prime minister said, “we will not unwind the lockdown on May 11 – or we will do it more strictly”.

Governments across Europe are wrestling with the conundrum of how best to lift confinement measures that are exacting a disastrous toll on their economies while avoiding a dangerous second wave of contagion.

Philippe said French children could begin returning to pre-school and primary school classes from 11 May on a voluntary basis and with classes restricted to 15 pupils. From 18 May, junior high schools may reopen in areas where infections are low, with a decision to be made at the end of May on whether senior schools can reopen in June.

Philippe said all employees would be encouraged to continue working from home if possible and, if not, companies would be expected to introduce shift working to ensure physical distancing. Masks would be obligatory where that was not possible.

Most shops – but not cafes, bars or restaurants – will be allowed to reopen from 11 May, except those in shopping centres, and public transport is set to resume with 70% of the Paris network expected to be running.

Masks will be compulsory on public transport, with passengers leaving every other seat empty. Travel between France’s regions, and outside a 100km (60 miles) radius from home, is permitted only for professional or urgent family reasons.

The French will be able to start socialising again as long as gatherings were kept to a maximum of 10 people, Philippe said, and people will be able to move freely outside without certificates justifying their activities. Individual sports will be permitted, but beaches and some parks will remain closed at least until 1 June.

Public amenities such as libraries and small museums will be able to reopen from 11 May, but large museums will not. Religious authorities have been asked not to organise services before 2 June.

Philippe said the government would reassess at the end of May whether conditions were right to ease restrictions further, to decide whether and when cafes, bars and restaurants could be reopened, and if summer holidays could go ahead.

The French government is aiming for at least 700,000 tests a week by 11 May, with authorities planning to trace and test all those who have come into close contact with a confirmed case, whether symptomatic or not.

In Spain, which has also suffered more than 23,000 coronavirus deaths, Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister, outlined a similar “plan for a transition to normality” in four phases, each lasting approximately two weeks, with no specific date when bars and restaurants could reopen.

“It depends on all of us,” Sánchez said. “Any irresponsible behaviour will harm society overall. We have to curb our impatience and allow ourselves to be guided by the experts. Our behaviour can save lives and this is what patriotism means right now.”

The country’s population of nearly 47 million have spent more than six weeks in strict lockdown, with only adults authorised to leave home to buy food and medicines or walk the dog. In a first cautious step out of confinement on Sunday, children were allowed out for the first time.

Sánchez said most cases were concentrated in cities, Madrid and Barcelona in particular, so restrictions would be loosened sooner in some rural areas where the pandemic seems more under control.

Initially some bars and restaurants with outside terraces will be allowed to open 30% of their outdoor tables, and hotels will be permitted to offer 30% of their rooms. Cinemas and theatres will also reopen, but again at one-third capacity. Schools will not reopen until September.

Source: The Guardian