Children in France aged six and over will have to wear face masks in the classroom to keep schools open, the prime minister, Jean Castex, said on the eve of a second national lockdown.
Speaking before the National Assembly backed the new restrictions by 399 votes to 27, Castex said the mandatory use of masks was being extended to primary school pupils on the advice of public health officials. Until now, only children over the age of 11 have had to wear masks in school.
France enters a new month-long national lockdown from midnight on Thursday in attempt to shield the health service, where 60% of intensive care beds are currently occupied by Covid patients, double the proportion of 15 days ago.
“There is no other solution,” the prime minister said of the measures announced by the president, Emmanuel Macron, on Wednesday evening. “We will have to manage a higher peak of hospitalisation in November than in April. The virus is accelerating, we must also accelerate.”
France’s move is expected to be followed on Friday in Belgium, where the rate of infection is the worst in Europe.
The EU’s 27 heads of state and government will seek to coordinate measures to control the virus and deal with capacity issues in intensive care units during a summit via videoconference on Thursday evening.
In Sweden, which has shunned lockdowns, the health agency has moved to tighten pandemic advice for three regions, including Stockholm and Gothenburg, saying infection rates were rising sharply. It advised residents to avoid indoor environments, such as shops and gyms. The health agency said there were 2,820 new coronavirus cases in Sweden on Thursday, the highest since the start of the pandemic and the third record number in a matter of days.
France’s lockdown will mean residents will once again have to swear a declaration to leave their homes, and all non-essential businesses, including bars and restaurants, will be closed. Private gatherings will be banned, though people will be given time to return home from the All Saints’ Day holiday this weekend. Universities will give courses online.
Unlike during the spring lockdown, public services and schools will stay open. Castex said people driving their children to schools would need a certificate and “in accordance with the opinion sent to us yesterday by the high council of public health, the wearing of masks will be extended to primary schoolchildren from the age of six.
“Like all our large public services, national education must continue to function,” he said. “The nurseries, the schools, the colleges, high schools will remain open. The same goes for the extracurricular sector. I know that the teaching staff and all the educational staff will be there … [From Monday] the health protocol will be adapted and reinforced to ensure protection of all: children, teachers, parents of pupils.”
The list of essential shops allowed to open will include those selling food, newspapers and stationery. Garages, computer repair shops, opticians and funeral parlours will also be exempted from the shutdown.
In the Reichstag, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, also defended her government’s new tough shutdown measures, announced on Wednesday, saying propaganda and conspiracy theories were undermining the fight against the pandemic. As she was jeered by members of the far-right AfD party, Merkel said: “Let me be clear: lies and disinformation, conspiracy and hate damage not only democratic debate but also the fight against the coronavirus.”
Merkel agreed with Germany’s 16 state leaders in a videoconference on Wednesday to shut restaurants, bars, cinemas, theatres, gyms and public pools among other leisure facilities for the month of November to try to halt a surge in infections. Schools, nurseries, shops and other essential businesses would stay open and there would be no restrictions on people leaving their homes, unlike in harder-hit countries such as France and Spain.
Merkel said new cases had doubled over the past week and intensive care units were quickly nearing capacity. “The measures we are adopting are appropriate, necessary and proportional,” she said. “At the beginning of the cold time of the year, we find ourselves in a dramatic situation … The winter will be hard – four long difficult months – but it will come to an end.”