France's lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, on Thursday endorsed by a large majority a return to nationwide confinement to bring the coronavirus epidemic under control.
Of the 433 deputies, 399 gave the green light to the government plan to halt people's social life and close non-essential businesses to prevent spiralling COVID-19 cases from overwhelming hospitals.
"There is no other alternative (...) The only, the real solution is to cut the chains of contamination to avoid an increase in hospitalizations," said Prime Minister Jean Castex when laying out the lockdown plan to lawmakers.
"The virus is accelerating, we have to accelerate too... We must by all means break the epidemic spiral," he stressed.
Starting from Thursday midnight, the country's 67 million population will be locked down until at least early December. People are allowed to go out for work if they cannot do their job at home, for health emergency, to buy essential goods, or for an hour exercise daily. They need to fill in a document explaining their reasons for doing so and carry it with them.
University students are called to switch to online learning. Non-essential shops including bars, cafes, gyms and restaurants will close their doors. Private meetings and public gatherings are banned and cultural ceremonies and conferences are suspended.
But unlike March-May confinement, visits to elderly nursing homes are allowed. Nurseries, primary and middle schools as well as public institutions will remain open with reinforced health protocol.
School children aged six and over must wear masks in class. Previously mask wearing was compulsory for kids over 10 years.
In addition, factories will keep operating while construction and farming activities are maintained "to avoid a brutal drop in economic activity as last spring."
"We must continue to work in protective sanitary conditions while stopping the viral circulation," Castex said, announcing a further aid of 20 billion euros (23.38 billion U.S. dollars) to help hard-hit businesses to stay afloat and avoid bankruptcy.
With the one-month lockdown, the government eyes to cut the number of COVID-19 infections to 5,000 per day from over 30,000 currently.
But, some experts said this target was too optimistic as new restrictions need more time to bear fruit.
"We have to wait three weeks to see the first effects of the confinement, that is to say a halt in the increase in cases. Then it takes three more weeks to see a significant drop in the number of hospitalized people," said Anne-Claude Cremieux, head of the infectious and tropical diseases department at Saint-Louis hospital.
"So in a month, we will have the confinement's first effects, but the decline (in viral circulation) will not necessarily be completed. It is possible that we will have to wait a few more weeks," she told France Inter radio.
Government scientific adviser Jean-Francois Delfraissy said: "by December 1, we will not be at 5,000 contaminations per day. I can tell that to you straight away today. We will need more time."
"While this confinement is put in place, we will have two or three weeks extremely difficult for the health system," he said.
Health Minister Olivier Veran echoed that hospitals would face a difficult situation in coming weeks with the outbreak of severe COVID-19 cases.
"We want to do everything so that the French can reunite with their family and friends for Christmas holidays. Will they (the holidays) be the same? Possibly not," he told France Info radio.
"We cannot rule out a third wave," he added, stressing that the country had to show "courage" and "patience".
France on Wednesday recorded 36,437 new COVID-19 infections, 3,020 more than the number registered in the previous 24 hours. The cumulative number of coronavirus cases soared to 1,235,132, including 35,785 deaths, up by 244 in one day, figures released by Public Health Agency showed.
As the world is caught in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries including France, Germany, China, Russia, Britain and the United States are racing to find a vaccine.
According to the website of the World Health Organization, as of Oct. 19, there were 198 COVID-19 candidate vaccines being developed worldwide, and 44 of them were in clinical trials. Enditem