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As Paris hospitals near Covid saturation, all eyes on Macron

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Paris (AFP)

Intensive care units at Paris hospitals will be packed with Covid-19 patients as soon as next week, the system's chief warned Tuesday, ratcheting up expectations that President Emmanuel Macron is preparing tougher measures to slow the surge in cases.

"It's inevitable," Martin Hirsch, the head of the 39 hospitals in Paris and its suburbs, told the Parisien newspaper.

"By around October 24, there will be a minimum of 800 to 1,000 Covid patients in intensive care, representing 70 to 90 percent of our current capacity," he said.

The prospect puts more pressure on Macron, who is widely expected to announce tighter restrictions in a prime-time TV interview Wednesday night.

He met with top ministers Tuesday morning to evaluate potential measures, with media reports suggesting a curfew is likely for the capital and other cities at risk of seeing their hospitals overwhelmed.

Since Macron's last major TV interview, to mark the Bastille Day holiday in July, the government has made the wearing of face masks compulsory both inside enclosed public spaces nationwide and outside in Paris and most other cities.

"This is a pivotal moment," a source close to the presidency said, confirming that while a curfew is under consideration, a full lockdown for the capital or other cities is off the table for now.

Macron will also call on people "to better learn to live with the virus, over a longer period, to avoid making the situation even worse," the source said.

- 'Reduce social contacts' -

On Saturday, the number of new infections in France rose by 26,896 in 24 hours, a record since widespread testing began.

And the national health agency reported a spike in Covid deaths on Monday to 94 in the previous 24 hours, with 171 new patients in intensive care.

"Individual responsibility is 50 percent of this. We won't succeed if people don't get serious," a government source told AFP.

Hirsch called for tighter work-from-home requirements and new measures to ensure social distancing.

"All of us -- you, me, everyone -- have to reduce our social contacts by 20 percent," he said.

In Paris and other at-risk cities, bars have already been closed, access to gyms sharply curtailed, and stricter crowd limits set for shopping malls and other venues.

Overall, 1,539 people are now in intensive care across France, which has a total capacity of some 5,000 beds -- at the height of the crisis last April, more than 7,000 patients were in intensive care, some in emergency military field hospitals.

- 'Clear failures' -

An expert panel set up to evaluate France's response to the pandemic reported Tuesday that it found "clear failures of anticipation, preparation and management".

The panel, lead by Swiss infectious disease specialist Didier Pittet, was announced by Macron last June.

Its conclusions are not due until December, but the main findings are being published "to provide advice that could be useful now," Pittet said at a press conference in Paris.

The experts pointed to a shortage of face masks early in the outbreak, when officials realised that emergency stocks had been allowed to dwindle in recent years.

Authorities were also slow to ramp up Covid testing, in part because unlike Germany, "France doesn't usually involve private labs in its strategy", relying almost solely on hospitals, said Pierre Parneix, a panel doctor based in Bordeaux.

The report also noted a lack of coordination between various authorities and health agencies.

But it lauded "the exceptional adaptability and mobilisation" of health workers, which allowed the country's hospital system to "withstand the shock" as cases soared last spring.

The initial report "points out mistakes," an Elysee Palace official told AFP, "and that's exactly why the president requested it -- So that we know, based on what we've learned, not to make the same mistakes again."

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