France Tries to Avoid Lockdown With Tighter Border Controls

France will seal its borders for travelers coming from outside the European Union and close large shopping centers as part of a fresh set of measures aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19 and avoiding a more draconian shutdown of the economy.

The country is doing everything to avoid a lockdown, Prime Minister Jean Castex said in a television address on Friday. He urged more people to work from home and imposed negative virus tests for everyone entering France from within the EU, except cross-border workers.

The spread of Covid-19 variants “is raising the risk that the pandemic will worsen,” he said, adding that France still has a chance to avoid a third lockdown.

The new measures cap a week of speculation about whether PresidentEmmanuel Macron would take the plunge and dramatically tighten curbs after delaying a decision that would inevitably hurt an already battered economy and could prove politically costly, just 15 months before a presidential election.

Macron has been torn between pressure from doctors and researchers calling for a lockdown to prevent a surge in cases and deaths similar to the U.K. and businesses wanting to remain open to avoid collapse.

Most countries in Europe are now taking tougher steps to fight back new forms of the virus, with leaders warning mutant strains will result in longer, possibly stricter lockdowns. The EU is counting on shots developed by various western drugmakers to tame the pandemic, but the pace of the drive is slower than expected and the bloc is embroiled in a supply spat with manufacturers.

The number of coronavirus cases has crept up in recent weeks along with the emergence of more virulent forms, putting pressure on the French hospital system. More than 2,000 cases of new variants are being reported daily, or about 10% of all cases, up from several hundreds in early January, Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Thursday. He added that some hospitals were increasingly struggling to treat severe patients as intensive-care units are becoming crowded.

Around 3,000 patients are currently in intensive care, a level comparable to October, when the second lockdown started -- and ended in mid-December -- Veran said. Before the Covid crisis, France’s capacity was 5,000 beds.

While non-essential businesses have re-opened, restaurants, cafes, bars, cinemas, theaters and sports venues have been closed since October. The latest rules taking effect Sunday also shut large stores that don’t sell food and ban travel to the country’s overseas territories except under extenuating circumstances.

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