France aims to have vaccinated at least 10 million people by mid-April, 20 million by mid-May and a total of 30 million by the summer, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday.
Castex said that so far 3.2 million people have been vaccinated, including 1.8 million who have received two doses.
The prime minister told a weekly Covid-19 news conference that more than 60 percent of all new coronavirus infections registered in France are linked to the variant first detected in Britain. He said a weekend lockdown would be imposed in the northern Pas-de-Calais department, following similar lockdowns around Nice and Dunkirk.
“The circulation of the virus has accelerated over the past two weeks and that is clearly linked to the UK variant,” Castex said.
While the virus is not rising exponentially, the health system remains under massive pressure, he added.
He also said the Hautes-Alpes, Aisne and Aube would be added to a series of high-alert departments, but added that there was no need for weekend lockdowns there at this stage.
Paris area spared weekend lockdown
Castex’s remarks confirmed speculation that President Emmanuel Macron had decided to spare the Paris region a weekend lockdown for now, determined to keep France’s economy as open as possible, even though the death rate from Covid-19 is still creeping up.
Macron is hoping to avoid another setback for the economy in the expectation that France’s coronavirus vaccination programme, which has targeted the most vulnerable but has been slow, will gradually reduce the numbers falling sick and dying.
“If we can avoid a weekend lockdown in Paris, we will try to do so,” Macron told ministers, according to a Reuters source. “Every weekend gained is important.”
A spokesperson for Castex had said that a lockdown, even if only at the weekend, should be a “last resort”. The situation in Paris will be reviewed next week.
While some neighbours such as the UK and Germany have resorted to sweeping national lockdowns to fight a resurgence in the virus spurred by new variants, France has opted for a less severe nightly curfew and the closure of bars, restaurants and entertainment venues.
As Britain now charts a course out of lockdown as new infections fall sharply, France has not yet turned the corner.
France registered 25,279 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, slightly fewer than the 25,403 tallied last Thursday, health ministry data showed.
France also registered 293 new Covid-19 deaths in the last 24 hours, from 322 on Wednesday.
The number of people in intensive care with the disease fell by four to 3,633, the first drop in a week, after reaching a 2021 high of 3,637.
Cases in France have been rising at a steady weekly rate of just above 4 percent since early January, although this is far below increases of more than 20 percent seen before and during a nationwide lockdown in November.
In Ile-de-France, a region of 12 million people centred on Paris, there were 388 Covid-related deaths in hospitals in the week to March 3, compared to 379 and 374 in the preceding weeks.
The weekend lockdown in Pas-de-Calais will remain in place for several weeks, an official told Reuters.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)