France steps up travel controls as virus cases soar
Pedestrians walk in a street of Lyon on the eve of a new lockdown in France's Rhône department, put in place in an attempt to halt the spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19). AFP
The French government announced increased police checks on Friday to enforce travel restrictions in place in Paris and several other regions as coronavirus cases continue to soar around the country.
Checks at train stations, airports and motorway tolls will "increase from today", the prime minister's office said, describing the situation as "critical" amid the arrival of a third wave of infections. Around 20 million people in France, including those in the Paris region, are classed as living in high-infection zones where they are not allowed to travel further than 10 kilometres (six miles) from their home unless they have an essential reason.
Daily cases in France have nearly doubled since the start of the month, reaching over 45,000 on Thursday, with the number of people in intensive care in hospital now nearly the same level as during the second wave in November.
In Paris, the pressure on hospitals is even greater, with non-essential surgeries being cancelled and patients transferred to other regions because of the rapid spread of the more contagious British variant. Nearly one in every 170 people is currently infected in the capital region, official data shows.
French President Emmanuel Macron has come under fire for going against the advice of scientific experts and his health minister at the end of January when he decided not to impose a national lockdown. "These coming weeks will be difficult. We'll take effective measures at the right time and to my mind there are no taboos," Macron said, appearing not to rule out another national lockdown if necessary.
"I have no mea culpa to issue, no regrets and no sense of a failure," he added in defence of his decision to keep the country in a state of semi-openness at the end of January.
Macron and government ministers have defended the choice, saying cases remained stable during February and that citizens are tired and struggling from more than a year of restrictions which have included two lockdowns.
Won't slow epidemic?
Last Thursday, the government announced new curbs for Paris as well as regions in the north and southeast that have led to non-essential shops close and the travel restrictions.
But schools are open and people are allowed to leave their homes for as long as they like. Prime Minister Jean Castex called it a "third way".
Many medical experts consider the restrictions not tough enough. "I understand the strategy of wanting to do gradual measures, but with the situation we are in I'm not sure that they are going to slow down the epidemic," Solen Kerneis, an infectious diseases specialist at Bichat hospital in northern Paris, told AFP.
France's vaccination campaign has also been sluggish amid a chronic shortage of doses, with only around 10 percent of the population having received at least one dose.
The top health watchdog recommended offering the jabs to dentists and vets on Friday in a modest widening of the eligibility criteria, with the focus until now on vaccinating the over-75s, medical personnel and those with existing health problems.