Europe

France to loosen Covid-19 measures in February

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French Prime Minister Jean Castex said Thursday that France will end audience capacity limits for concert halls, sporting matches and other events from February 2, part of a gradual lifting of Covid-19 restrictions made possible by a vaccine pass that will be required for most public areas starting Monday.  Face masks will also no longer be required outside from February 2.

During a press conference on Thursday, Castex said France’s general Covid-19 situation was starting to change in a more favourable manner, allowing restrictions to be loosened.

Castex also justified the easing of restrictions with France’s new Covid-19 vaccination pass that will come into effect on Monday, January 24, provided it gets approved by the Constitutional Council.

The prime minister added that the pass could even be suspended if the Covid-19 situation improved dramatically. Health Minister Olivier Véran said that would depend on how much pressure hospitals are under.

In a first step towards loosening Covid measures, the audience capacity limits for concert halls, sporting matches and other events at 2,000 people indoors, and 5,000 outdoors will be lifted from February 2.

“We are a bit more confident in saying we can relax some of these constraints and let people return to life as normal as possible,” Véran said.

Previously, a health pass could also be obtained with a recent negative Covid-19 test, a possibility the government ended in its bid to convince more people to get jabs. Castex said 93 percent of French adults now had at least one dose.

“Since the announcement of the vaccine pass, one million French people have gotten vaccinated. That’s good, but it’s not enough,” he said, adding that booster shots would be extended to children aged 12 to 17 starting Monday.

Working from home no longer required

Working from home will also no longer be required for eligible employees from February 2. 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.

While work-from-home can be effective in terms of reducing the circulation of the virus, it can also have a negative impact on the broader economy as large swathes of the population stay away from commercial districts and shops.

Nightclubs to reopen

Castex also said Thursday that night clubs will be allowed to re-open from February 16: they have been shut since December. On that date, standing areas will again be authorised for concerts and sporting events as well as bars.

Eating and drinking will again be allowed in stadiums, movie theatres and public transport on that date.

Easing Covid-19 protocols in schools?

Castex also said he hoped to be able to ease face-mask rules for children in schools after winter vacation breaks in late February.

Some 17,000 classes are currently shut across France after students or staff caught the virus, and parents must get a series of tests for exposed children before they can return.

France is facing a fifth wave of infections due to highly contagious Omicron variant, reporting nearly half a million new coronavirus cases on Wednesday to leave the seven-day average at 320,000 cases. However, the number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care has stabilised since early January, to around 3,850 people currently, leaving the government some room for manoeuvre.

The government’s science advisory body said the fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic would remain at a high, but manageable, level of infections until mid-March.

“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,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said earlier Thursday. “There are hopes the Omicron wave could peak soon,” he added.

Castex insisted that studies have shown Omicron to be less dangerous than other virus variants, which have prompted several governments worldwide to pull back on restrictions.

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.

Spain‘s government is also pushing to begin treating Covid-19 as any other endemic respiratory virus like seasonal flu — though Castex warned against underestimating the threat from the virus.

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

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS & AFP)

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