France will resume a nationwide lockdown on Thursday night in a desperate effort to break the progression of the Covid-19 epidemic.
The lockdown will continue at least until December 1st.
President Emmanuel Macron said he hopes it can be lifted in time for Christmas.
“The virus is circulating in France at a speed that even the most pessimistic had not anticipated,” Mr Macron said in a television address. “The number of contaminations doubled in less than two weeks. Yesterday, 527 of our compatriots died of Covid-19. Yesterday, we counted close to 3,000 persons in intensive care units, that is to say more than half our national capacity.”
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reported nearly 254,000 new cases of Covid-19 in France over seven days from October 19th to 26th, making it the European country where the virus is spreading most rapidly.
This lockdown will differ from the 55-day closure last spring in three important ways: elementary and secondary schools will remain open, though universities are asked to teach online. Patients in care homes may receive visitors, on condition they wear masks and socially distance. Public services will remain open.
But bars and restaurants will close for all but takeaway. Non-essential shops must close. Citizens and residents will again be required to fill out a form each time they go out for work, exercise, to care for a close relative, attend a medical appointment or buy groceries.
Mr Macron said travel between French regions will stop, but he did not say how far people may go from home. Nor did he say if time outside will be limited to one hour daily, as it was in the spring. The government will provide further details on Thursday.
Unlike last spring, Mr Macron said, the epidemic has engulfed the entire country. Hospitals have been forced to cancel important cardiac and cancer surgery, in some cases postponed since the spring.
“We should doubtless have respected barrier measures better... Like all our neighbours, we are submerged by the sudden acceleration of the epidemic, by a virus which seems to gain strength as winter approaches.”
The second wave will doubtless be “harder and more lethal than the first”, Mr Macron warned. “Whatever we do, we will have close to 9,000 patients in intensive care units by mid-November, that is to say our entire capacity.”
If France did not go into lockdown, doctors would be forced to choose between road accident victims and Covid-19 patients, and among Covid-19 patients, MrMacron said. “This is unacceptable.”
He listed his priorities in this order: protecting the elderly and the most fragile;protecting young people, because the disease can have long term consequences for them;protecting medical personnel still tired from last spring;protecting the poorest;and protecting the economy.
The French leader said there was no contradiction between protecting people’s health and the economy, because “there is no prosperous economy if the virus circulates actively” and “no health system can hold if there is not a strong economy to finance it.”
It was important to find a balance, he said. “For us, nothing is more important than human life.”
Adopting a “herd immunity” strategy would mean an additional 400,000 people would die, he said. “Never will we allow hundreds of thousands of our citizens to die.”
It was not possible to isolate persons at risk in a bubble. The scale of the epidemic is so great, with between 40,000 and 50,000 contaminations daily, probably double that number, that the method of testing, tracing and isolating was simply not feasible.