President orders school closures to limit infections from third wave of pandemic

Putting a brake on the virus: France’s president Emmanuel Macron in a TV address announces fresh lockdown measures on Wednesday evening © Nicolas Tucat/AFP/dpa

French President Emmanuel Macron has announced that lockdown measures for the Covid-19 pandemic will be extended to the whole country from Saturday for four weeks, in an attempt to curb a surge in the “third wave” of infections that is threatening to overwhelm hospitals. 

In a televised address to the nation from the Elysée Palace on Thursday night, Macron also yielded to demands that he limit school attendance, announcing that home schooling would apply from Monday for a week before the scheduled spring holiday — a measure that will keep classes shut for three consecutive weeks. 

“It’s not about giving in to panic,” Macron said. “We have not lost control . . . but we can’t be in denial either.”

He added: “It’s a delicate position of potential saturation [of hospitals] across the whole country . . . For the coming month we need to mobilise — for our elders and for our children, to protect and allow them to continue to learn,” he said. 

Macron said existing support to businesses and employees affected by the pandemic would be maintained, while the finance ministry said 150,000 non-essential shops and businesses would now be closed across the country, with the total cost of emergency support running at €11bn a month.

Macron’s determination to keep schools open after the first coronavirus lockdown a year ago — in contrast to the closures ordered in many other countries — has been popular in France. But he has come under intense criticism in recent weeks for ignoring the warnings of scientists and doctors about the need for tighter measures against the “third wave”. 

“They were so obsessed with the schools [staying open] that they were ignoring the main site of viral infection,” said Jean-Christophe Lagarde, a member of parliament for Seine-Saint-Denis, a particularly hard-hit suburb on the northern fringe of Paris.

He had urged Macron to send pupils home early for the Easter holidays because saliva tests on students in his constituency’s schools suggested high rates of infection. “The virus is circulating quicker in schools than elsewhere,” he said. “This will explode the health system.” 

Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, on Wednesday also called for the closure of schools in the capital.

Hundreds of classes and some entire schools across France have shut in any case as more infectious variants of the virus have taken hold. Such closures accelerated this week after a new rule came into force closing down any class where one pupil had tested positive. In Paris alone, 850 classes are closed and 20,000 pupils are out of school, Hidalgo said. 

Even in the UK, where the vaccination programme is much more advanced than in the EU, the reopening of schools in England on March 8 has slowed the decline in coronavirus cases.  More than 95,000 coronavirus deaths have been recorded in France since the start of the pandemic and hospital intensive care units are overflowing in the Paris region and elsewhere. Macron said the number of intensive care beds had been raised from 5,000 to 7,000 and would increase further to more than 10,000. More than 5,000 of the beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients.

Jean Castex, his prime minister, will speak to both houses of the French parliament on Thursday and there will be a vote on “the development of the health situation and the measures needed to respond to it”, his office said. 

Some doctors have warned intensive care facilities are so stretched that they may have to start to “triage” arriving patients — deciding who will benefit from available treatments and who should be left to their fate — if the situation does not improve. 

Others complain that the current controls, including a nationwide 7pm-6am curfew and the closure of bars and restaurants, and curbs on movement and the closure of many shops in 19 départements, are too lax and amount to a “pseudo-lockdown”. 

Patrick Bouet, president of the National Council of the Order of Doctors, said France had “lost control of the epidemic”. In an open letter to Macron, Bouet said: “Faced with an extremely grave situation, it is essential that we have stricter measures, and thus a real lockdown everywhere it is needed.” The government hopes that the lower infection numbers reported on Monday and Tuesday compared with the previous week means the peak of the third wave has been reached, although there would still be a lag of two to three weeks before pressure on hospitals eased. 

“The measures taken 10 days ago could begin to show their effect in the coming days, or not — we’ll probably find out in the next 24-48 hours,” health minister Olivier Véran told the National Assembly on Tuesday.