PARIS - France has done a better job of flattening a second wave of COVID-19 infections that some of its European neighbours but it would be premature to talk about an end to the lockdown, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday.
Castex said the 'R' rate that measures the spread was now at 0.65 countrywide, the same level France reached at the end of a three-month confinement in the spring, but that citizens must not lower their guard over the festive holidays.
"Your efforts are paying dividend," Castex told a press conference. "Pressure from the epidemic is weakening and it is weakening more in France than in other European nations."
President Emmanuel Macron this week announced a phased unwinding of the lockdown, to begin on Saturday with the re-opening of non-essential shops and then theatres, museums and cinemas in mid-December.
Stores must restrict numbers to 1 client for every 8 square metres of shop floor, put in place one-way systems where possible and ventilate their premises, the government says.
Bars and restaurants will stay closed until Jan. 20.
The finance ministry said the expanded financial support for businesses would cost 3.5 billion euros in December.
Health Minister Olivier Veran warned the second wave was not over. A COVID-19 patient was admitted to intensive care every six minutes, he said, while France will not reduce the number of new infections to 5,000 per day until the end of the second week of December.
"The epidemic is not yet behind us," Veran told the press conference, reiterating that France could start rolling out COVID-19 vaccines by late December or early January.
A leading government adviser said mass inoculations would be needed for France to return to some sort of normality in the autumn of 2021 - something that might prove difficult in a country where scepticism about vaccines runs strong.
The government is under pressure from some economic sectors to accelerate the easing of restrictions, in particular from the hospitality and ski industries. Households are also feeling the pain.
French and German consumer confidence sank in November as coronavirus restrictions crushed any prospect of a quick reboot in the euro zone's two biggest economies.
(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Benoit Van Overstraeten; Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean) ((email@example.com; +33149495339;))