France Doubles Down on Vaccination Pass as Country Reports 208K New COVID Cases

France's government is speeding up introduction of a new health pass measure that would allow only fully vaccinated people to enter public venues like restaurants, cinemas, theaters and sports facilities.

If approved by the parliament, the measure would bar unvaccinated people from entering places where the so-called vaccine pass is required, even if they have recent negative test results. The bill is expected to be voted on quickly, and the government is aiming to have the pass in effect by mid-January.

France reported a record 208,000 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, as a nationwide surge is being fueled by the rapidly spreading Omicron variant. The vaccine pass is part of a government strategy to contain the outbreaks with vaccinations rather than new lockdowns.

Health Minister Olivier Véran defended the vaccine measure on Wednesday and urged people who have not yet gotten a booster shot to "protect yourself in the coming days."

"There is really little chance that this time you can escape [COVID-19]. The virus is spreading too fast," he said, speaking to the unvaccinated.

France COVID Pass
At a parliamentary hearing, French Health Minister Olivier Véran defended a government plan to allow only the fully vaccinated continued access to places such as restaurants, cinemas, theaters, museums and sports arenas. Above, Véran arrives for a hearing at the National Assembly on Wednesday. Thibault Camus/AP Photo

The pass will also be required on long-distance trains and domestic flights.

Véran said at a parliamentary hearing that the record number of infections means that more than two French people are testing positive every second for COVID-19. Véran estimated that about 10 percent of the French population has been in contact recently with a person infected with the virus.

Véran said that in Paris public hospitals, 70 percent of people hospitalized in intensive care units aren't vaccinated.

He also advised the most vulnerable people who didn't get the vaccine booster shot yet to "protect yourself in the coming days. Don't take risks."

The speeded-up introduction of the so-called vaccine pass forms part of a government strategy to use vaccinations, rather than new lockdowns, to try to soften the impact of the Omicron variant on already overburdened hospitals.

France has vaccinated 77 percent of its population and is rushing out booster shots, again to combat Omicron. But more than 4 million adults remain unvaccinated, including more than 1 million people over 65.

More than 3,400 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in intensive care units on Wednesday, an increase of 10 percent over the past week. The figure represents two-thirds of ICU beds occupied by people infected with the virus. But the number is lower than during the previous peak in the spring, when about 6,000 COVID-19 patients needed intensive care.

The bill provides for an exception to the pass—notably to take trains and planes—for people with family or health emergencies, on the condition that they are able to present a negative test.

Those who aren't vaccinated but have proof of a recent COVID-19 recovery will be able to get a vaccine pass limited to six months following infection.

On Monday, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced a series of new measures to try to curb the spread of the virus. Yet the government stopped short of taking drastic restrictions, like curfews or lockdowns, appearing to be trying to strike a balance between measures needed to relieve hospitals and keep the economy running at the same time.

Starting from next week, big events will be limited to 2,000 people indoors and 5,000 people outdoors. Eating and drinking will be banned in cinemas, theaters, sports facilities and public transportation, including on long-distance routes. Working from home will be mandatory at least three days a week for employees whose job makes that possible.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

France COVID Surge
A nurse tends to a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at Delafontaine AP-HP hospital in Saint-Denis, outside Paris, on Wednesday. Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images