PARIS (REUTERS) - French Prime Minister Jean Castex on Thursday (Jan 7) said restaurants, cinemas and museums would remain closed throughout January and ski resorts might not reopen before the February holidays as France cranked up its vaccination rollout.
A nationwide nightly curfew was being extended until at least Jan 20, said Castex, adding that he could not rule out a further nationwide tightening of measures at a time hospitals remain under severe pressure.
One in two intensive care beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients and non-essential procedures are still being postponed to ease the burden on hospitals.
"It is out of the question that we lower our guard," Castex told a news conference.
Castex said restaurants would remain shuttered until mid-February at the earliest.
The coronavirus has claimed more than 66,500 lives in France, the seventh highest death toll in the world. Health Minister Olivier Veran said France was closely tracking cases of the new British and South African variants of the virus.
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.
France will continue to limit entry to France from Britain to French citizens and returning residents in possession of a negative Covid-19 test.
President Emmanuel Macron and his government have come under fire for the slow pace of the vaccine rollout which has been tangled in red tape and left France lagging behind European neighbours such as Britain and Germany.
Veran said France's medical regulator had approved extending the period between the two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot to six weeks from three.
"We want to go faster," Veran 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.
Seeking to reassure one of the world's most vaccine-sceptical nations, Veran added: "The vaccine is safe. Serious side effects are rare."
With more vaccines expected to be approved by regulators by late March, France could hope to emerge from the crisis by the summer, the prime minister said. Before then, schools would only be closed in the most serious of circumstances.
"A new phase in the fight against the virus has begun and I have no doubt about our collective success," Castex said.