France is to extend its early-evening Covid-19 curfew to a further eight departments, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced on Saturday, admitting that the measures were tough but necessary. One of the areas is the southwestern Bouches-du-Rhone, including the city of Marseille, where 21 cases, including several of the new strain, have been detected.
Prime Minister Jean Castex outlined the latest strategy during a visit to a vaccination centre in Tarbes, in the south of France on Saturday.
The eight new departments subject to an earlier curfew as of 6pm Sunday are Bouches-du-Rhône, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Cher, Côte-d’Or, l’Allier, Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin and Vaucluse. The Drome and the Var were later added to the list and will start the curfew, from Tuesday.
The government had already imposed a post-New Year curfew from 6 pm (1700 GMT) on 15 of the country's 101 departments, the remainder being subject to an 8 pm curfew.
These regions were identified as the areas where the virus is spreading the most in a country which has seen some 67,000 deaths to date from 2.7 million cases.
Opposition grows in Marseille
Castex highlighted the southern port of Marseille, France's second largest city, where local politicians of all stripes have voiced opposition to extending the partial lockdown, questioning its effectiveness.
"In reality we are applying the same criteria to Marseille as we apply elsewhere," said Castex, confirming the earlier lockdown would be extended to eight departments including the Bouches-du-Rhone, which includes Marseille.
"Everybody is conscious of the epidemic not weakening or that on the contrary it is growing stronger in some areas," Castex said.
Local police chief Christophe Mirmand said the move is justified, following the fact that "21 people from a large family cluster tested positive to the virus", nine of them with the new British strain, according to health authorities.
The regional health body reported that the positive cases were among members of a French family settled in England, but who had come to the south of France for a holiday at the end of the year.
But local leaders have spoken out against the move, saying it is too harsh on their economies.The president of the Vaucluse mayors association Jean-François Lovisolo told AFP that he felt the new curfew would only "penalise local shop owners", who are already struggling.
"At 6pm, most of the at-risk population is already at home. This measure will only hamper services such as takeaway food, petrol stations, bakeries," he said.
PM defends government's vaccination drive
Castex also defended the government's vaccine rollout strategy, criticised in some quarters for its slow start.
"The objective is to go quickly, under absolutely irreproachable security conditions."
Opinion polls show around half the French population are sceptical about having the jab.
Castex underlined what he termed the "credibility" of the vaccine strategy, adding "it must succeed as that is what will allow us to find our way out of this serious and worsening health crisis."
Health Minister Olivier Véran stressed that France would be stepping up the rate of vaccination from Monday, after authorities gave the greenlight to the US-made Moderna vaccine on Friday.
He said he expects to see around 100,000 people vaccinated by the end of the weekend, with the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine already underway.
A validation for the AstraZeneca vaccine is due to be granted at the end of January, head of the Heath Authority Dominique Le Guludec told French media on Saturday.
Meeting to decide fate of Six Nations rugby
In a separate development, the French government has recommended that rugby clubs postpone European Cup matches against British teams due to the new Covid-19 variant, according to a statement on Saturday.
The decision puts a doubt over next weekend's scheduled third round of games. A meeting to discuss this year's Six Nations, set to start on 6 February, will take place next week.