March 10, 2020 / 3:52 PM / in 21 days

Macron urges calm after French minister contracts coronavirus

PARIS (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.

French President Emmanuel Macron reacts as he leaves after a visit at the SAMU-SMUR call centre at the Necker Hospital, focused on COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, in Paris, France, March 10, 2020. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS

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 now infected 1,784 people in France and killed 33, the head of the country’s public health service, Jerome Salomon, said on Tuesday evening.

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, additional reporting by Dominique Vidalon; writing by Michel Rose; editing by Richard Lough and Timothy Heritage

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