French Prime Minister Jean Castex said Thursday that France’s border with the UK would remain shut "until further notice" and efforts would be made to expand and fast-track vaccinations as he warned of a worsening of the Covid-19 crisis in the weeks to come.
France's border restrictions with Britain will remain in place "until further notice", Castex said at a news conference, warning that the coronavirus health crisis in France had become even more "fragile".
"It is out of the question that we lower our guard," Castex said as the country confirmed two clusters of the mutant UK coronavirus variant.
France closed its border with Britain on December 20 after the emergence of a highly contagious new strain of the disease in the UK. Only certain categories of people, including French citizens and truck drivers, are allowed through the border, providing they have a negative PCR test from the last 72 hours.
Nineteen cases of the British variant have been identified in France, the minister said, including two particularly worrying clusters in the greater Paris region and Brittany.
French Health Minister Olivier Véran said Thursday that all laboratories had been mobilised to track new variants of the coronavirus in France.
Vows to speed up vaccines
Castex vowed that more vaccines would be approved by regulators by late March, and that vaccinations would be sped up with a new government target of 1 million inoculations by the end of January.
The French government has come under fire for a sluggish start to vaccinations which have been tangled in red tape and left France lagging behind European neighbours such as Britain and Germany.
Fewer than 50,000 people have been given a vaccine since December 27, compared with hundreds of thousands in Germany within the same timespan and more than 1.3 million in the UK, which began vaccinations slightly earlier.
"We want to go faster," Véran said, defending the bureaucratic safeguards initially imposed to ensure a safe rollout but saying procedures would be simplified.
France has pre-ordered 200 million doses of different Covid-19 vaccines, more than enough to cover its entire 67-million strong population. Surveys show six in every 10 citizens intend to refuse the vaccine.
Castex also announced that more people are set to become eligible for the jab, including the over-75s and handicapped people in care homes.
Restrictions to remain in place
France will keep its restaurants, cinemas and ski resorts closed while it accelerates its Covid-19 vaccination rollout because the coronavirus is still spreading too fast and hospitals remain under severe pressure, Castex said.
One in every two intensive care beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients and non-essential procedures are still being postponed to ease the burden on hospitals. Experts are warning of a coming surge in infections in the wake of extensive family travel over the holidays.
Restaurants will remain shuttered until at least mid February and ski resorts might not open before the February holidays. A nightly curfew will be extended until at least January 20 and further national restrictions could not be ruled out, Castex added.
France reported 21,703 new confirmed Covid-19 cases on Thursday, down from 25,379 on Wednesday but still very far from the government's target of fewer than 5,000 daily additional infections. There were 277 new coronavirus deaths against 283 on Wednesday.
The coronavirus has claimed 66,841 lives in France, the seventh-highest death toll in the world.
Worse to come for economy
Earlier Thursday, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire reiterated warnings of worse to come, saying the Covid-19 crisis would almost certainly take an even bigger toll on the French economy this year than in 2020.
"We are dealing with a virus that isn't going away," Le Maire said.
"There will be more bankruptcies in 2021 than in 2020 ... which will result in job losses over a certain period that will be difficult to absorb."
The government has forecast economic growth of six percent this year, after an expected nine percent plunge last year.
France has spent billions of euros to limit job cuts and keep businesses from going under, in particular hotels and restaurants, cinemas and other cultural institutions, and the sports sector.
Restaurants and hotels, which are pushing to increase aid packages to three million euros per business, had been hoping to be allowed to reopen on January 20.
"We are not going to let them fail, we will spend the money that is necessary," Le Maire said.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)