French Prime Minister Jean Castex called on citizens to be prudent to prevent the spread of COVID-19, announcing measures to create more efficient testing and tracing capacity in the country.
It comes after the country recorded nearly 10,000 new cases in a single day on Thursday, a record high since the beginning of the pandemic.
President Emmanuel Macron had promised that new measures would give some “visibility” about the weeks to come.
Yet after a defence council meeting, the prime minister appealed to French people to continue to use preventive behaviours, such as physical distancing and wearing a mask, while announcing few new measures to combat the virus' spread.
"Our strategy is not changing. Fight the virus without putting aside our social, cultural and economic life, the education of our children and our capacity to live normally," Castex said.
Noting that there has been a large wait in certain cities, laboratories will now prioritise people who are symptomatic or contacts of positive COVID-19 cases ahead of others, Castex said, adding that the government would hire 2,000 additional contact tracers.
In Marseille and in Bordeaux, as well as in Guadeloupe, Castex said the prefectures should have plans by Monday for local measures due to rising hospitalisations in those areas.
Epidemic worsens in France
The situation in France deteriorated amid a mass return from holiday and the start of school in September has contributed to rising cases.
As of Thursday, there were 32 schools fully closed in France due to COVID-19 and 524 classes sent home due to the virus spread, the French education ministry told Euronews.
But many say that it's different than the previous outbreak in March. Roughly half of these new cases are asymptomatic and many are among young adults between the ages of 20 and 39 who develop less severe forms of the virus.
UK officials have said they want to learn from countries like France and Spain where hospitalisations are now rising. They recently closed pubs and restaurants in Bolton, where the incidence rate is lower than in many major French cities.
The head of France's scientific council Jean-François Delfraissy has said that "the government will be required to take a certain number of difficult decisions in the next 8-10 days".
Delfraissy has said that most of the infections are coming from gatherings in private, calling on French people to try harder to prevent infection.
Changes to quarantine
Castex also announced that the period of self-isolation for those who test positive for COVID-19 will be changed from 14 days to seven days.
Members of the scientific council said at a press conference recently that some people were not following the period of self-isolation.
Some experts have said that this measure follows the current evidence about the virus, even though most health authorities globally recommend quarantining for two weeks.
"We know that people are infectious for 5-6 days after their symptoms so there’s really no point to enforce 14 days isolation for people when we know that one week after their symptoms they are not infectious anymore," said Pascal Crépey, a professor at the School of Advanced Studies in Public Health in Rennes.
Why no restrictions on private gatherings?
Crépey points out that the "set of measures that were in place [in June and July] were efficient enough to control the epidemic," explaining that for months after the lockdown, cases remained under control despite restaurants and bars being open.
"There’s still time to adopt stricter measures," Crépey says, explaining that there are tools we can still use to lower transmission in France.
But he says some stricter policies in other countries, such as limiting private gatherings or creating "social pods" might not work in France.
England, for instance, just limited private gatherings to six people but France's high court ruled in May that public gathering restrictions cannot "extend to locations used for living," meaning the government could not limit private gatherings.
"It’s very difficult in France because what you do at home is your business so the state doesn’t have anything to do with that...I think it’s a cultural thing as well. All policies need to be adapted to [governments'] own populations."
Could France eventually return to a strict lockdown?
French government officials have said that the economic crisis could become worse than the health crisis, insisting that they wanted to take local measures to address the crisis instead of doing a national lockdown.
These local measures have included making masks mandatory outside, including in major cities such as Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, and Nice.
When a cluster broke out in a nudist village in the south of France, local officials closed 17 establishments in order to curb the spread of the virus.
Local measures such as closing bars and restaurants would be "a much smaller blow [to the economy] than generalised lockdown where people cannot go to the office and cannot go to factories," economist Nicolas Véron told Euronews.
"I think the general lockdown that affects manufacturing and services across a range of sectors which is very much what countries like France and Spain had implemented in the spring, that is unlikely to come back."