March 23, 2020 / 8:05 PM / 6 days ago

French prime minister says coronavirus lockdown could last weeks

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe takes part in a debate about the state of health emergency bill at the National Assembly in Paris, France March 21, 2020, as a strict lockdown comes into effect to stop the spread of the COVID-19 caused by the novel coronavirus in the country. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS

PARIS (Reuters) - Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said a virtual lockdown in France imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus could last several more weeks and that his government was tightening restrictions even further.

He said citizens from Tuesday would only be able to exercise once a day, within 1 kilometre of their home, and that burial ceremonies would be restricted to 20 people. Open-air markets should close, he added.

“A lot of citizens want normalcy to return, but it’s not happening soon,” Philippe told TF1 news. “We feel the lockdown measures that we have taken, and which we will toughen yet again... could last several weeks.”

A week after President Emmanuel Macron introduced unprecedented restrictions on French public life to slow the spread of the virus, the death toll spiralled higher to 860 and the number of sick needing life support jumped 20% to more than 2,000.

As France’s healthcare system comes under acute strain, the Philippe refused to rule out localised curfews. But he said the decision for those lay with local authorities. Several are already in place, including in Nice on the Mediterranean coast.

“We do not want to put a national curfew in place. But we told prefects to get in touch with mayors who deem (a curfew) necessary. And we will not hesitate, where necessary, to take tougher measures, meaning curfew measures,” the prime minister said.

He also said the anti-malaria drug chloroquine would not be put on the market for mass use against coronavirus until more testing had been done.

Reporting by Geert de Clercq and Benoit Van Overstraeten; Editing by Richard Lough and Grant McCool

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