France to loosen COVID curbs in February, allowing popcorn in cinemas again

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A medical worker administers a nasal swab to a patient at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing centre in Saint-Hilaire-de-Loulay near Nantes, France, January 17, 2022. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

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PARIS, Jan 20 (Reuters) - France will ease work-from-home rules from early February and allow nightclubs to reopen two weeks later as the general COVID-19 situation in the country is starting to improve, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Thursday.

Caps on the number of people allowed into sports and entertainment venues will also be lifted on Feb. 2, and masks will no longer be required outdoors from that date.

People will also again, from Feb. 16, be allowed to eat popcorn - or other snacks - in cinemas. COVID protocols in schools, which among other things require children to wear masks in class, could be relaxed after the winter holidays.

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However a vaccine pass, which requires a certificate of vaccination to enter public venues like restaurants, cafes, cinemas and long-distance trains, will enter into force as planned, Castex said, saying it would be enforced from Jan. 24.

The vaccine pass could be dropped later if the risk to public health from the pandemic eased significantly, he told a news conference. Health Minister Olivier Veran said that would depend on how much pressure hospitals are under.

"The wave linked to the Delta variant is clearly receding everywhere," Castex said. At the same time, the wave caused by the newer Omicron variant "is starting to stall in the regions where this variant first hit at the end of December".

France reported over 425,000 coronavirus infections on Thursday. The number of COVID patients in intensive care has stabilised, leaving the government some room for manoeuvre.

And the government's science advisory body said the fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic would remain at a high, but manageable, level of infections until mid-March. read more

The vaccine pass, approved by parliament on Sunday, still needs the green light of the Constitutional Court, which will make its views known on the matter on Friday. The pass has re-energised anti-vaccine street protests.

Up until now, a negative COVID test was also accepted to get access to public venues. That will no longer be the case.

Castex also encouraged parents to vaccinate children aged 5-11, and said children aged 12-17 would now be able to get a vaccine booster.

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Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Dominique Vidalon, Marc Angrand, Richard Lough; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich

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