By Benoit Van Overstraeten and Henri-Pierre André
PARIS (Reuters) - The coronavirus is spreading through France faster than at the peak of the first wave in spring, a government scientific advisor said on Friday, in one of the starkest alerts yet about the scale of the resurgence engulfing Europe.
France reported 41,622 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, a new daily record, and will break through the 1,000,000 cumulative tally on Friday - a grim milestone for the government as it and other European capitals battle to keep their economies open.
The warning from epidemiologist Arnaud Fontanet came as the country's finance minister said the economy was likely to shrink again in the fourth quarter as a result of the nightly curfews and other restrictions imposed to tame the virus.
"The virus is circulating more quickly than in the spring," Fontanet, who sits on the Scientific Council advising the government on its COVID response, told BFM TV.
France's three-month-long lockdown had brought the virus under control, Fontanet said, but with it came a false sense of security during the summer. By late July, the caseload was trending higher again, though it was a cold snap that altered the disease's trajectory, he added.
"There was one cold week in September and all the indicators went the wrong way again all over Europe. The virus spreads better in the cold because we live more inside," he said.
France's healthcare system is again buckling under the pressure even though doctors say the average COVID patient's stay in ICU is twice as short as during the spring peak as medics learn how to better tackle the disease.
COVID patients occupy nearly half of all the country's 5,000 ICU beds.
"It is possible the second wave will be worse than the first," Martin Hirsch, head of public hospitals in Paris, warned on RTL radio. "No one can say when the peak will come."
"HOPE TO SEE YOU SOON"
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire's warning of a strong risk of contraction in the French economy, the euro zone's second biggest, in the fourth quarter underscored concerns a double-dip recession may loom ahead for the single currency bloc.
French business activity contracted more sharply than expected in October, IHS Markit data showed, with firms unlikely to commit to large-scale projects.
"With the European winter fast approaching, the prospect of a sharp drop in new positive cases and a full reopening of the economy seems unlikely," IHS Markit economist Eliot Kerr.
France will extend a curfew to 38 more administrative departments from midnight on Friday. In all, two thirds of the country's 67 million population will be confined indoors each night from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. until early December.
Le Maire said the curfews would cost the government 2 billion euros ($2.37 billion) in financial aid for companies.
The curfew is hurting the hospitality sector particularly hard. Many restaurateurs are shutting their doors rather than limp on with a reduced service.
"We hope to see you soon," Michelin-starred chef Michel Sarran wrote on a notice declaring his restaurant's indefinite closure.
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(Reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten Henri-Pierre Andre and Sudip-Kar Gupta; writing by Richard Lough; editing by John Stonestreet and Phlippa Fletcher)