Masks made mandatory for six-year-old French pupils as Europe steps up Covid restrictions

German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemns populists for saying coronavirus is harmless

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French schoolchildren aged six and over must wear masks in classrooms as tough new Covid-19 restrictions sweep the country from Friday.

The wearing of masks was mandatory only for students 11 and older until now, but Prime Minister Jean Castex told parliament that new efforts were needed "to protect all our children, teachers and parents”.

The latest measures come as coronavirus is tightening its grip on most parts of Europe.

Restaurants, bars and non-essential businesses in France will be closed until December 1 at the earliest and workers encouraged to work from home. But unlike the country’s two-month lockdown earlier this year, schools will remain open.

Top sporting events such as top-flight football Ligue 1 are set to continue. French health authorities reported 244 virus-related deaths in a single day on Wednesday, making a total of 35,785 across the country since the pandemic began, the third-highest toll in Europe after Britain and Italy.

President Emmanuel Macron has warned that the country is being "overpowered" by a second wave.

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 15: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Hand washing between all activities is compulsory at the Tanger B elementary school on its second day resuming classes on May 15, 2020 in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris, France.Of the usual 224 students only 26 were able to attend this day due to the new rules to fight the coronavirus pandemic. France is beginning to ease its nationwide lockdown imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19, which has killed more than 27,000 people in the country. (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images)

In Germany, meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel defended new circuit-breaker restrictions the country has introduced to slow the spread of Covid-19 before the winter and hit out at far-right politicians who claim the virus is harmless.

Ms Merkel said populists who question the seriousness of the crisis were putting lives at risk.

"Lies and disinformation, conspiracy theories and hatred damage not only the democratic debate but also the fight against the virus," she told parliament. Ms Merkel was heckled by members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) while making the speech.

Sectors expecting to be hardest hit, such as hospitality, have criticised the latest measures, while AfD officials are angered by what they see as a historic curtailment of freedom.

"The daily bombardment with infection numbers is clearly designed to scare people as most don't see Covid in their daily lives," said AfD parliamentary leader Alexander Gauland.

"In the name of citizens' health, (the government) has decided on the biggest restrictions of freedom in the history of this republic," he said. Germany recorded a record 16,774 rise in infection cases on Thursday, bringing the total to 481,013 since the outbreak began. The death toll rose by 89 to 10,272.

The situation is now so precarious in the Netherlands that authorities have been forced to airlift patients to neighbouring Germany because Dutch hospitals have reached their limits.

Despite the surge of cases across Europe, the British government has resisted calls to impose another national lockdown and instead has used localised measures to try to counter the spread of coronavirus.

Senior minister Robert Jenrick said it is “right we try everything in our powers to avoid a blanket national lockdown”.

He said the virus is “very concentrated in some places” and added the correct approach is to target restrictions on those areas with the worst outbreaks.

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist who is credited with being behind the country's much-debated approach of keeping large parts of society open, said the country is about ”to reach a critical point,” as he announced the restrictions for Malmo, which took effect immediately for at least a three weeks.

"There has up to now been no infectious disease whose transmission was fully halted by herd immunity without a vaccine," Dr Tegnell separately told Die Zeit, a German newspaper.

An employee gathers protective face masks from a production line conveyor at the KB MEDICA plant in Sartrouville, near Paris, as France tries to tackle a second wave of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, October 28, 2020. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

The European Commission's President Ursula von der Leyen also warned there would be changes to the Christmas period.

“We are deep in the second wave," she said. “I think that this year’s Christmas will be a different Christmas."