By Dominique Vidalon and Matthias Blamont
PARIS (Reuters) - The French government spared the Paris region from a weekend coronavirus lockdown for now and pledged to accelerate the vaccine rollout in two dozen high-risk zones in an effort to ease the load on hospitals and stave off further restrictions.
President Emmanuel Macron is determined to keep the economy open as long as possible even as the COVID-19 infection rate rises nationally.
Prime Minister Jean Castex did however announce on Thursday a weekend lockdown for the northerly Pas-de-Calais area, like that already imposed on the French Riviera. A nationwide nightly curfew has been in place since mid-December.
"This decision not to lockdown (other areas) has a flip-side. For the government, it is to accelerate testing and the vaccine deployment, from this weekend," Castex told a news conference.
Macron hopes to avoid a further setback for the economy in the expectation that the country's vaccination programme, which has targeted the most vulnerable but been slow, will gradually bring down the numbers of people falling sick and dying.
More vaccine centres would open over weekends in 23 high-risk regions, pharmacists would be able to deliver shots from mid-March, and supplies of vaccine doses would increase in the coming weeks, Castex said.
There were indications the vaccine was already having an impact. Infections were down 17% among over-80s, he said.
While some neighbours such as Britain 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.
France expects to deliver 10 million first-round shots by the end of April and 30 million -- or to two thirds of all adults -- by the summer.
"We can reasonably think that by the end of April or beginning of May that it might be possible to lift some restriction, though we have no crystal ball," Health Minister Oliver Veran said.
France registered 25,279 new coronavirus infections on Thursday, bringing its total of cases to 3.84 million, and 293 more deaths, for a total death toll of 87,835.
Cases have been rising at a steady weekly rate of just above 4% since early January, although this is far below rises of more than 20% seen before and during a nationwide lockdown in November.
Castex urged health workers who were spurning the vaccine to get inoculated. Fewer than half of nursing home workers and only one third of medical staff who have been offered the shot have been vaccinated.
"That's not how it should be and it compromises our ability to fight the virus," Castex said.
(Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Frances Kerry and Alistair Bell)