PARIS — Facing criticism over a slow roll-out of virus vaccines — with barely 500 people vaccinated in the first week — France's government pledged Thursday to speed up jabs for the elderly.

Prime Minister Jean Castex said French citizens over 75 years old would have access to a vaccine from Jan. 18, replacing previous plans for next month at the earliest. The vaccines will be eligible for all in that age group — not just those in nursing homes.

Castex also said France would be spreading out Pfizer vaccine doses by six weeks, instead of three. It brings the country closer to the spacing being carried out in Britain, at 12 weeks.

In a flurry of virus-related announcements during his televised address, Castex also dashed the hopes of France's famed restaurant industry for a re-opening this month.

"It is out of the question that we lower our guard," Castex said, adding that restaurants and bars would remain shuttered until mid-February at the earliest. French restaurants have been closed since October.

President Emmanuel Macron has said restaurants and bar might be re-opened in January if daily infections fall below 5,000. Castex said that since they were hovering around 15,000, a relaxation is not yet possible.

A national curfew — starting at 8pm in most places — will also remain in force until at least Jan. 20.

It comes as French authorities are reinforcing the monitoring of containment measures in the light of new, potentially more contagious, variants of COVID-19 in the country. A Health Ministry statement said that, as of Thursday, 19 cases of the so-called "Kent" variant, which first emerged in southeast England, had been detected in France.

Three cases of the South African variant have also emerged. Authorities are concentrating their efforts on two suspected variant clusters, in the northwestern region of Brittany, and in Paris and its suburbs.

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