France has extended partial lockdowns to three more areas of the country, bringing to 19 the number now subject to tighter restrictions on movement in a bid to curb the latest surge in the coronavirus pandemic.
Announcing the latest measures, health minister Olivier Véran described the epidemiological situation in France as "not good", with COVID-19 cases increasing around the country. More than 45,600 new cases were reported in the previous 24 hours, he said. The figure is up 50% on the current daily average.
The new zones are the Rhône département, including France's third-largest city of Lyon, plus the Aube and Nièvre in eastern France. The new rules, which the minister called "reinforced braking", will apply from midnight on Friday night.
These follow the Paris area, a large part of northern France and the Alpes-Maritimes in the south, which all had more restrictive measures imposed a week ago, affecting 21 million people, a third of the population.
The French can leave their homes for unlimited periods within a 10-kilometre radius. But people can only meet in groups of up to six, and travel between regions is banned unless for urgent reasons. Most shops are closed but there are exemptions, and schools remain open.
The measures are more flexible and less restrictive than a year ago, when the first lockdown was imposed on the country as the new disease took hold.
The government has again backed off ordering a tough lockdown, despite an increasingly alarming situation in hospitals with a rise in the number of COVID-19 patients.
Véran defended the decision, questioning whether a full lockdown would be accepted by French people who were "exhausted by fighting tirelessly for a year". But he did not rule out stricter measures if the situation continued to deteriorate.
Describing the pressure on hospitals, the minister said 80% of scheduled operations would have to be postponed, and the average age of intensive care patients was getting lower.
Earlier on Thursday, French Prime Minister Jean Castex called for people "more than ever to stick together" in the face of an "extremely strong" third wave, during a visit to a hospital in Melun, south-east of Paris.
Questioned on the availability of vaccines for health workers, Castex promised that "the doses are coming, we will have a lot of them in the weeks and months to come."
President Emmanuel Macron has come under criticism for resisting calls from medical experts in late January for a nationwide lockdown, in the face of rising cases, in favour of an overnight curfew and other restrictions.
The government has also been taken to task for failing to chart out a path ahead -- in contrast to the first lockdown a year ago -- unlike other countries such as the UK.
The UK is considering putting France on its "red list", severely restricting travel from the country. Senior German politicians have called for an urgent meeting of the French and German governments after unconfirmed reports that Berlin is preparing to classify France as "high-risk", with consequent restrictions on cross-border travel.
Elsewhere in Europe
Poland is tightening measures for two weeks over the Easter period to curb a deadly surge in the pandemic. The country has registered a record for daily coronavirus cases for a second consecutive day.
The new restrictions include the closure of nursery schools, furniture stores and beauty salons, as well as a limit on the number of people in churches, in an attempt to limit human contacts.
In the UK, MPs agreed to prolong coronavirus emergency measures for six months until September, allowing the Conservative government to keep its unprecedented powers to restrict citizens’ everyday lives.
The House of Commons also approved the government's road map for gradually easing Britain's strict coronavirus lockdown over the next three months.
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has backed down from a five-day shutdown over Easter, although a framework has been agreed to try to contain the virus. Restaurants, bars and many leisure facilities remain closed.
The country has registered more than 75,000 deaths since the outbreak of the pandemic. The country’s disease control centre reported 22,657 new confirmed daily cases Thursday, up from 17,504 new daily cases a week ago.
Ukraine has reported a third consecutive record daily number of deaths from the virus, 362 people having died in the previous 24 hours. The health system is struggling to deal with the pandemic in the country of 40 million people that has had 31,000 COVID-19 deaths.
Vaccinations only began on February 24 due to logistical problems and a high level of vaccine hesitancy. Ukraine has only received 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the only jab available at the moment.