March 10, 2020 / 3:43 PM / 21 days ago

Macron urges calm after French minister contracts coronavirus

* Culture minister tests positive for coronavirus

* President’s chief of staff is self-isolating

* Coronavirus has infected over 1,400 people in France

* Thirty have died of the coronavirus in France

By Marine Pennetier

PARIS, March 10 (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron warned France on Tuesday that it was at just the start of a health epidemic as the coronavirus outbreak crept closer to the heart of French political power.

Culture Minister Franck Riester said late on Monday he had tested positive for the virus, and Macron’s chief of staff is self-isolating after contact with an infected person, said an official at the Elysee Palace, the presidential residence.

Measures are in place to protect Macron: meetings are kept to a minimum, video conference calls are being encouraged and non-essential visitors are being turned away.

“Don’t start thinking we’re creating a bubble,” the Elysee official said, adding that “we’re still in line with the kind of advice we’re giving to the whole French population.”

Macron’s government had led calls for a fiscal shock in Europe to combat the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak. There has been global disruption to businesses and supply chains, and neighbouring Italy is in lockdown.

Macron visited a paediatric hospital on Tuesday and urged the French people to stay calm after signs of panic buying of staple goods in and around Paris.

But he cautioned: “We’re only at the beginning of this epidemic.”

The coronavirus has infected more than 1,400 people in France and killed 30.

Riester became the first French government minister to go down with the coronavirus. He said he had been tested on Monday afternoon after feeling flu-like symptoms.

He attended last Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, chaired by Macron, and sessions last week in parliament where five lawmakers have tested positive.

A policy of no handshakes between ministers was already in place by then. This week’s cabinet meeting was still due to take place, an official at the prime minister’s Matignon office said.

Desks are being cleaned twice a day and the distance between seats is being widened, the Matignon official said.

Macron’s chief-of-staff, Patrick Strzoda, was working from home as a preventative measure and had not shown any symptoms of a coronavirus infection, the Elysee official said.

Reporting by Marine Pennetier; writing by Michel Rose; editing by Richard Lough and Timothy Heritage

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