Coronavirus Deaths Surge in UK and France

A bicyclist displays a sign in London on Tuesday supporting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he fights the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

(CN) – The United Kingdom and France are experiencing their worst days yet in the coronavirus pandemic with both countries reporting huge death tolls on Tuesday and officials warning grim weeks lie ahead.

“We are still in a worsening phase of the pandemic,” French Health Minister Olivier Véran told BFM TV, a French broadcaster, on Tuesday.

Following British Prime Minister Boris Johnson being taken into intensive care on Monday after he contracted the virus, it was up to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to deliver the U.K.’s worst death toll yet at a news conference Tuesday evening.

He reported 786 new deaths, raising the U.K.’s total death count to 6,159, the fifth highest in the world. Raab said Johnson was in stable condition.

“I’m confident he’ll pull through because if there’s one thing I know about this prime minister, he’s a fighter,” Raab said.

In France, 597 new hospital deaths were announced, bringing that country’s total to more than 10,300, the fourth worst in the world after Italy, Spain and the United States. On Monday, France reported its worst daily death toll with 833 fatalities.

These death tolls, like those reported by other countries, are considered partial because many people dying at homes and nursing facilities are not included in death counts, often because those victims are not tested for the virus. France, though, has reported deaths in hospitals and nursing homes.

In Italy, the number of deaths and new infections has fallen for several days, indicating the worst may be over. It appears that Spain too may be reaching its peak. Still, the daily death tolls in both countries remain catastrophic and health experts warn fatalities will continue to add up for days and weeks to come.

On Tuesday, Spain reported 743 more deaths and Italy’s toll rose by 604. In Italy, 17,127 people have died and Spain has recorded 13,798 fatalities.

Italian officials are growing more optimistic that a month-long nationwide lockdown is yielding results. The number of new infections rose by just over 3,000 on Tuesday, a continuation of a downward trend.

The Trocadero square in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in background during the nationwide confinement due to the coronavirus outbreak (AP Photo/Lesdronographes)

“Finally we are beginning to see a decline in the number of new cases,” said Gianni Rezza, the director of infectious diseases at the national health institute. “If we were to put it on an epidemological curve we’d see that after a phase of plateau there is a descent.”

Still, he warned that the virus poses serious risks even as fewer people contract it. “Naturally, we have to be very cautious and keep in mind that this virus will remain in the population,” he said. “Even if we got down to zero cases we can’t give everyone free rein, we have to engage in a tough fight.”

Milan, Italy’s financial capital and a city at the epicenter of the country’s outbreak, proved to be an especially encouraging sign for Italian authorities. In Milan, there were fewer than 100 new infections, a milestone on the city’s path to recovery.

With the crisis in France deepening, French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to deliver his third televised address this week and he likely will announce an extension to the nationwide lockdown, which is set to expire on April 15, French media reported. The U.K. is also expected to extend its lockdown.

Public confidence in Macron’s handling of the pandemic has slipped, according to a poll by ELABE, a French research firm.

At first, Macron was hesitant to impose restrictions on France and he was criticized for allowing municipal elections to be held on March 15. Only two days later, he placed France under a nationwide lockdown.

On March 13, 59% percent of respondents to ELABE’s poll said they trusted Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to handle the outbreak. But in recent polling, trust in their leadership has sunk to 41%. Still, Macron is enjoying a bump in his ratings, which were abysmal before the pandemic with only about 29% of French expressing trust in him.

Macron’s chief rival for the presidency, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, is relentlessly attacking the president’s handling of the crisis and has questioned whether the government is hiding information from citizens.

As the deaths climb in France and warmer weather arrives, Parisians were told on Tuesday that outdoor exercise would not be allowed starting on Wednesday between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. The city’s police prefect, Didier Lallement, said the restrictions are needed because too many people were flouting social distancing guidelines over the weekend by taking to the streets for jogs and gathering outside.

In his speech, Macron may take up the issue of whether the general public should be required to wear protective masks when they are in public. Imposing requirements to wear masks may be part of strategies to lift restrictions. French officials also are considering lifting restrictions based on geography and even age.

Until now, the French government has told people that protective masks should go to medical workers, but in recent days many officials have said everyone should consider wearing a mask in public to better contain the spread of the virus.

Several French cities – among them Nice, Sceaux and Cannes – are moving ahead with plans to make it mandatory for people in public to cover their mouths or face fines. People are being told to wear masks or cover their mouths with scarves. 

On Tuesday, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo added her voice to the debate and said she too thinks people should be wearing masks, French media reported.

Across the globe, there is a growing demand for masks as people and countries view them as crucial in the fight against the spread of this novel coronavirus, which is transmitted via droplets emitted when a person coughs or sneezes. The virus can be contracted by touching surfaces where droplets land. Scientists say the virus can remain on surfaces for hours and even days.

The World Health Organization has recommended the general public not wear medical masks because it says they provide limited protection against infection when used alone and may give people a false sense of protection. The WHO says people may even be more at risk of infection by wearing a mask because people may be prone to touching their faces and eyes while wearing them. The WHO advises sick people and their caregivers to wear masks. 

But many experts believe widespread mask wearing in Asian countries were key in preventing the spread of the virus there. China, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong have been praised for their efforts to stop the virus from spreading.

While France doesn’t have enough masks for its 67 million inhabitants, officials say the production of protective masks is ramping up quickly. In a recent interview on French broadcaster TF1, Philippe, the prime minister, said manufacturers will be able to make 10 million medical masks a week in the coming weeks. He added that 2 billion masks are expected to be delivered to France by the end of June. In addition, a half million non-medical masks are being produced each day, French officials say. The government says it wants the country to become self-sufficient in its mask production.

“We encourage the general public, if they wish, to wear masks, in particular these alternative masks which are being produced,” said Jérôme Salomon, the director general of health in France.

Masks are becoming mandatory in public in more places across Europe. In Lombardy, the hardest-hit region of Italy, people are required to cover their mouths with masks or scarves when they are in public. Austria too is requiring people to wear masks when they go into supermarkets and on public transportation. Similar measures are in effect in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. 

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Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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