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French PM warns 'difficult' days ahead over coronavirus


PARIS (AFP) -- French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe raised the alarm Friday over an "extremely high" surge in coronavirus cases in the country and warned things will be "difficult" in the coming days.

After 365 people died and more than 2,300 people were hospitalised in France in a single day, the military sent a plane Friday to evacuate six patients from the hard-hit east of the country where hospitals are overstretched.

"We find ourselves in a crisis that will last, in a health situation that will not improve any time soon," Philippe said.

The premier warned the country must "remain extremely mobilised" in the fight against the epidemic that has so far officially claimed 1,696 lives.

The toll is only for people who were hospitalised, not those who died at home or in old age facilities, which are badly affected by the outbreak.

Among the recent deaths was that of a 16-year-old girl, France's youngest coronavirus victim to date.

The country has some 14,000 coronavirus patients in hospital, with 548 placed in intensive care just Thursday. Over 3,375 are in a critical condition.

Having started in the country's east, the epidemic is now spreading in the northernmost Hautes-de-France, the larger Paris region and other areas with "an extremely high surge that puts the entire healthcare system, the entire hospital system, under enormous pressure," Philippe said after a cabinet meeting held by videoconference.

"The situation will be difficult in the days to come," he added.

On Thursday, the government used a high-speed TGV train to evacuate 20 patients from the Alsace region bordering Germany and Switzerland to help relieve overstretched facilities there, officials said.

But the Ile-de-France region around Paris is also under strain, with 1,300 of its 1,500 intensive care beds reserved for coronavirus patients already occupied.

"We are filling the space to the maximum to accommodate as many intensive care patients as possible," said Bruno Riou, medical director at the AP-HP hospital group that serves the Paris region.

"We have not yet reached the peak of the epidemic, we will have to find solutions," he told France Inter, suggesting evacuations may be needed to bring patients from Paris to hospitals in less-affected regions.

Philippe said he would announce more details of the government's response Saturday with Health Minister Olivier Veran, particularly regarding the availability of equipment, masks and virus testing.

The government is expected to shortly announce an extension of the initial two-week period of home confinement for French residents which started on March 17.

French police have issued more than 225,000 fines for violations of the lockdown rules so far, Police Minister Christophe Castaner said Thursday.

Starting Friday, the Eiffel Tower will pay a daily homage with a special light show spelling "Merci" to France's healthcare workers, and reminding the rest of the population to "Stay at Home'. (AFP)
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