French Premier Jean Castex said that so far 3.2 million people have been vaccinated, including 1.8 million who have received two doses.
The prime minister told a weekly Covid-19 news conference that more than 60 percent of all new coronavirus infections registered in France are linked to the variant first detected in Britain. He said a weekend lockdown would be imposed in the northern Pas-de-Calais department, following similar lockdowns around Nice and Dunkirk.
“The circulation of the virus has accelerated over the past two weeks and that is clearly linked to the UK variant,” Castex said.
While the virus is not rising exponentially, the health system remains under massive pressure, he added.
He also said the Hautes-Alpes, Aisne and Aube would be added to a series of high-alert departments, but added that there was no need for weekend lockdowns there at this stage.
Castex’s remarks confirmed speculation that President Emmanuel Macron had decided to spare the Paris region a weekend lockdown for now, determined to keep France’s economy as open as possible, even though the death rate from Covid-19 is still creeping up.
Macron is hoping to avoid another setback for the economy in the expectation that France’s coronavirus vaccination programme, which has targeted the most vulnerable but has been slow, will gradually reduce the numbers falling sick and dying.
“If we can avoid a weekend lockdown in Paris, we will try to do so,” Macron told ministers, according to a Reuters source. “Every weekend gained is important.”
“This decision not to lockdown [other areas] has a flip-side. For the government, it is to accelerate testing and the vaccine deployment, from this weekend,” Castex told the news conference on Thursday.
More vaccine centres would open over weekends in 23 high-risk regions, pharmacists would be able to deliver shots from mid-March, and supplies of vaccine doses would increase in the coming weeks, Castex said.
There were indications the vaccine was already having an impact. Infections were down 17 percent among over-80s, he said.
While some neighbours such as the UK and Germany have resorted to sweeping national lockdowns to fight a resurgence in the virus spurred by new variants, France has opted for a less severe nightly curfew and the closure of bars, restaurants and entertainment venues.
As Britain now charts a course out of lockdown as new infections fall sharply, France has not yet turned the corner.
France registered 25,279 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, slightly fewer than the 25,403 tallied last Thursday, health ministry data showed.
France also registered 293 new Covid-19 deaths in the last 24 hours, from 322 on Wednesday.
The number of people in intensive care with the disease fell by four to 3,633, the first drop in a week, after reaching a 2021 high of 3,637.
Cases in France have been rising at a steady weekly rate of just above 4 percent since early January, although this is far below increases of more than 20 percent seen before and during a nationwide lockdown in November.
In Ile-de-France, a region of 12 million people centred on Paris, there were 388 Covid-related deaths in hospitals in the week to March 3, compared to 379 and 374 in the preceding weeks.
The government’s expectation that France can deliver 30 million first-round shots by the summer would mean two thirds of all adults inoculated with a dose.
“We can reasonably think that by the end of April or beginning of May that it might be possible to lift some restrictions, though we have no crystal ball,” Health Minister Oliver Véran said at Thursday’s news conference.
(The WikiLeaks with FRANCE 24, REUTERS)