PARIS, Nov. 12 (Xinhua) -- Two weeks into its second nationwide lockdown, France is seeing a slowdown in the number of new COVID-19 infections and a "fragile" downward trend of the viral circulation, official data showed on Thursday.
But "it would be irresponsible to lift or relax the lockdown now," French Prime Minister Jean Castex told a news conference on Thursday. "The gains are fragile."
Since Oct. 30, France has been placed in new nationwide confinement, effective until early December, which locked down 67 million inhabitants, who can go out only to work, buy essential items or for a health emergency. All non-essential businesses such as restaurants, cafes, bars, cinemas and gyms are closed.
Castex said his government has decided to "keep the confinement rules unchanged, at least for the next 15 days."
"The challenge for the coming days is not to relax our efforts but to reinforce them," even though there were signs of a slowing COVID-19 spread in France, he said.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases fell by 16 percent in a week. The key reproduction rate, also known as "R" which measures how fast the virus is spreading, is below 1 across the country, official data showed. It means each person who caught the virus is infecting less than one person.
The national lockdown "seems to produce its first effects," said Castex. "But we remain cautious...This recent trend is fragile and can only produce results if it is confirmed over time."
If the virus spreads further in the coming days, the government could impose more restrictions, Castex warned. But his government could consider easing rules over year-end holidays if the pandemic situation allows so, he added.
Thursday's data showed that another 33,172 people tested positive for COVID-19 in a 24-hour span, taking France's cumulative number of confirmed cases to 1,898,710 since the outbreaks of the pandemic.
The daily figure was lower than the 35,879 new cases registered on Wednesday, and much lower than the daily record of 60,486 cases reported on Nov. 6.
A further 425 people have died from the disease in the 24-hour span, bringing the cumulative number of fatalities to 42,960, according to figures posted on the government's coronavirus information website.
The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in France jumped by 737 in one day to reach an all-time high of 32,638, higher than the previous peak of 32,292 recorded on April 14.
Among those hospitalized COVID-19 patients, 4,889 required life support, a single day rise of 96, data showed.
Warning that one in four deaths in France was now due to COVID-19, Castex urged people to strictly respect confinement rules, among them the obligation to sign a document to justify their reason to go out.
As the world is struggling to contain the pandemic, countries including Germany, France, China, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States are racing to find a vaccine.
According to the website of the World Health Organization, as of Nov. 3, there were 202 COVID-19 candidate vaccines being developed worldwide, and 47 of them were in clinical trials.