France will enter a third national lockdown for four weeks, French president Emmanuel Macron announced in an address to the nation on Wednesday night.
From Saturday, all of mainland France will be under a 7 p.m. curfew, working from home will be expected from those that can, gatherings will be limited, non-essential shops will be closed, and travel restrictions will be imposed.
This brings the whole country in line with 19 virus hot-spot territories, and cities like Paris, which have had a limited lockdown imposed for the past two weeks.
The President also announced a three-week closure of nurseries, schools, colleges and high schools, that will have a staggered reopening from April 26.
The decision comes as a third wave of Covid-19 – blamed largely on the so-called ‘British variant’ of the virus – surges across Europe, and as countries face a race against time to vaccinate their populations.
‘The epidemic is accelerating, and we are likely to lose control, so we must find a new way of reacting. We must therefore set ourselves a new framework for the coming months,’ the head of state said during the dramatic address.
The 43-year-old blamed the ‘British variant’ for creating ‘a pandemic inside a pandemic’ that was more contagious and ‘more deadly.’
This meant the situation had changed since he was resisting calls for another lockdown amid spiralling infections, despite experts urging him to act sooner.
‘We are faced with a new situation,’ he said. ‘We are involved in a race. Propagation of a new variant that was identified by our British neighbours must be dealt with.’
Current efforts to limit the virus ‘were too limited at a time when the epidemic is accelerating’. The spread of the variant meant ‘we risk losing control’, he added.
‘With regards to schools, we’ve all got to be aware of our responsibilities as far as our youth are concerned,’ said Mr Macron. ‘We’ve kept them open since September 2020, but this will now change.’
The president said non-essential shops would remain shut, along with businesses such as cafes, bars, and restaurants.
Under the restrictions, people are allowed to go outside for leisure, but only within a 6 miles radius from their homes – and without gathering.
The French finance ministry said the new lockdown would see 150,000 businesses close nationwide, at an estimated cost of more than £9 billion for every month their doors are shut.
In a call for unity, Macron added: ‘If we stay united in the coming weeks … then we will see light at the end of the tunnel.’
Striking a more optimistic tone for the medium term, he said some cultural venues and cafe terraces would reopen in mid-May ‘under strict rules’ and a calendar drawn up for a progressive reopening of other facilities.
‘Thanks to the vaccine, the way out of the crisis is emerging,’ he said.
He also announced that the vaccine drive would be open to all those over 60 from April 16 and those over 50 from May 15.
The lockdown represents an embarrassing U-turn for Mr Macron, who ignored a call from his scientific advisers to introduce a tougher lockdown at the end of January.
But the French president took a gamble on curfews and local restrictions in the hope of giving the economy a chance to recover from a deep slump.
His options have narrowed in recent weeks as the feared British variant sweeps across France and Europe, and with presidential elections scheduled for 2022, Mr Macron is having to weigh both political and health considerations.
Acknowledging criticism from opponents, Macron struck a more humble tone than last week when he said that he had no reason to apologise for his handling of the pandemic.
‘At every stage of this epidemic, we could say to ourselves that we could have done better, that we made mistakes. That’s all true,’ he said.
‘But I know one thing: we have stood firm, we’ve learned and at every stage we’ve improved.’
At the end of January, the president bucked the European trend and went against the recommendation of his scientific advisers by deciding that France would not enter a third lockdown.
For a month, the bet looked to have paid off as new cases flatlined at around 20,000 a day in February, with France in a state of semi-openness – under a night-time curfew, but with shops and schools open.
But with daily cases having doubled to around 40,000 and hospitals in infection hotspots like Paris overflowing, the tide looks to have turned as medics pleaded for tighter restrictions.
The new measures stop short of a full national lockdown observed in France during the first wave of the pandemic in March and April 2020, when people were only allowed out for essential business or for exercise once a day.
‘We have adopted a strategy since the beginning of the year that aims to contain the epidemic without shutting ourselves in,’ he said.
A survey Wednesday by the Elabe polling group for BFM news channel showed that 70 percent of French people supported a strict lockdown in the most affected areas and 81 percent expected it to be announced.
Macron again defended not locking down in January.
Not locking down in January meant ‘we gained precious weeks of liberty, weeks of learning for our children, we allowed hundreds of thousands of workers to keep their head above water, without losing control of the epidemic,’ he argued.
‘Many of our neighbours decided to lock down, like our German neighbours who have been locked down for four months. Our Italian friends are on their fourth lockdown.
‘With our collective choices we gained precious weeks of liberty, weeks of learning for our children, we allowed hundreds of thousands of workers to keep their head above water, without losing control of the epidemic,’ he argued.
The question in the coming days will be whether the new measures are enough to reverse the sharp rise in infections which have been running at more than 40,000 a day, double their level at the beginning of the month.
More than 53,000 new cases were announced late Wednesday, but that number covered two days after no numbers were made public on Tuesday.
The country also recorded 304 new deaths, bring its total toll to 95,667.
Exhausted intensive care doctors and hospital directors have pleaded for a strict lockdown to stem the influx of new patients.
With warm weather and sunshine on Wednesday, groups of young people could be seen congregating in public spaces around Paris, ignoring rules barring the consumption of alcohol outside.
The French Hospitals Federation (FHF) urged Macron to order ‘a strict lockdown immediately’ on Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Mr Macron refused to apologise for his country’s Coronavirus strategy, saying: ‘I can tell you that I have no mea culpa to offer, no remorse, no acknowledgement of failure.’
But the French president has been running out of options to stop the spread of the virus. All of France’s restaurants, bars, gyms, cinemas and museums have been closed since October.