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France's bars, restaurants and ski lifts won't reopen before at least February, says PM Jean Castex

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French Prime Minister Jean Castex waits for Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, prior to their meeting at Matignon, in Paris, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex waits for Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, prior to their meeting at Matignon, in Paris, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Francois Mori
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French bars and restaurants will not reopen until at least mid-February, the government announced on Thursday, as new COVID-19 infections remain high.

Prime Minister Jean Castex told reporters on Thursday afternoon that the number of new daily cases average 15,000 — three times the threshold the government had set for further easing.

He also defended the country's much-criticised vaccination strategy.

Bars and restaurants, which had hoped to reopen on January 20, are now looking at mid-February "at the earliest", Castex said.

Cultural venues including museums and cinemas, which were meant to reopen before Christmas, will also remain shut, as will lifts in ski resorts.

The government will convene on January 20 to decide whether a reopening in time for the February school holidays is possible.

The nighttime curfew running from 20:00 to 06:00 has been extended for another two weeks. A stricter curfew, starting two hours earlier, imposed across large swathes of France's east, could be extended to a further 10 departments or regions, also in the east. The decision is to be taken on Friday evening.

More than 25,300 cases were recorded in the 24 hours to Wednesday afternoon. The death toll rose by 291 to 66,565 — the second-highest in continental Europe.

Authorities also announced on Thursday that two clusters — comprising 19 people — of the new British variant had been detected. The variant is up to 70 per cent more transmissible.

Castex said that the border with the UK will remain closed "under further notice" to anyone unable to show a negative test.

"We are still not out of the woods. We need to get back to a downward momentum. This is the condition for regaining control of the epidemic," Castex said.

He described the current situation as "fragile" with more than 2,500 new hospitalisations and over 200 admissions into intensive care units every day.

One million vaccinations in January

On the country's vaccination strategy, which has been harshly criticised in recent days for its slowness, Castex said the plan was to administer a first dose of the vaccine to a million people before the end of the month.

The country has so far received more than 1 million doses but vaccinated about 45,000 people since December 27, health minister Olivier Véran said. He stressed that the pace is to accelerate to tens of thousands per day.

Germany and Italy, which started their vaccination campaign on the same day as France, have so far vaccinated over 367,000 and 326,000 people respectively.

France is to receive weekly shipments of 500,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine until the end of February with deliveries then increasing to one million doses per week. Adding to these will be the Moderna jab, which was approved by the European Medicines Agency on Wednesday, with over 100,000 doses to be delivered this month. These will be followed by half a million doses in February, more than a million in March and April and two million doses in May and June.

Overall, France is to receive 78 million doses before the start of the summer, Véran said. He also said that to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible, the government might delay the second injection of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine from three weeks to six weeks.

He also emphasised that "the vaccine is safe" and that side effects "are extremely rare, of the order of one patient per 100,000 vaccinated," mostly impacting "highly allergic" people.