France strengthened border controls and extended a curfew to the entire country on Thursday to keep the coronavirus in check, but authorities warned that new restrictions were possible in the coming days if the epidemic worsened.
Starting next Monday, all travelers coming to France from countries outside of the European Union will have to present proof of a negative virus test that is no older than 72 hours, and will have to pledge to isolate for seven days before getting tested again, although it is unclear how that measure will be enforced. France will work with other European Union countries in the coming weeks on a coordinated protocol for travel from member states, according to Jean Castex, the French prime minister.
Mr. Castex praised the French for following distancing rules over the winter holidays, noting that health authorities had not recorded an “epidemic flare-up” tied to Christmas or New Year’s Eve celebrations. But he also said authorities were concerned about new variants of the virus, especially the more contagious one first identified in Britain.
“We must do everything to prevent it from rapidly spreading,” Mr. Castex said.
The average number of daily cases in France is at about 16,000, Mr. Castex said — far less than at the peak of the second wave last fall, but still over three times the target set by the government to loosen restrictions. Hospitalizations have stabilized at a high plateau, with nearly 25,000 Covid-19 patients. Nearly 70,000 people have died because of the virus.
An 8 p.m. curfew was already in place in most of France and had been tightened to 6 p.m. in some areas. Starting on Saturday and for at least 15 days, barring certain exceptions, everyone will have to be home by 6 p.m., Mr. Castex said, and shops will have to close by then. The government vowed to continue providing furlough programs, subsidies, loan guarantees and tax breaks to struggling businesses.
Schools, however, will remain open with stricter health protocols, by preventing classes from mixing in cafeterias, for instance, and by suspending all indoor physical activity. Additionally, France said on Thursday that it planned to test up to a million school children and teachers every month for the virus.
Olivier Véran, France’s health minister, said tests would be carried out “everywhere where it makes sense” and would include schoolchildren age 6 and older.
“What we know so far is that indeed the virus seems more contagious among children,” Mr. Véran told reporters. Mr. Véran said the government was “closely” watching the spread of the variant, which was reported in about 1 percent of all positive virus tests in France over two days last week, according to the health authorities.
France has also ramped up its vaccination rollout after a sluggish start, with some 318,000 people vaccinated so far. The campaign had focused on health workers and residents of nursing or retirement homes, but Mr. Castex said it would accelerate on Monday as vaccines will be made available to people over 75 and to those considered at risk because of serious illnesses. Some 700 vaccination centers will be opened to handle the influx of new patients.
“The priority of priorities to exit this crisis is the use of vaccination,” Mr. Castex said. “But we must collectively show patience and responsibility, because vaccination will not protect us sufficiently until several more months.”