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France vows to boost pace of vaccinations after slow rollout ‘fiasco’

A 78-year-old French woman is vaccinated against Covid-19 at Rene-Muret de Sevran Hospital near Paris, December 27, 2020.
A 78-year-old French woman is vaccinated against Covid-19 at Rene-Muret de Sevran Hospital near Paris, December 27, 2020. © Thomas Samson, AP
7 min

The French government has vowed to ramp up its Covid-19 vaccinations after an outcry from health professionals. France has lagged far behind other nations, including the UK and Germany, in administering vaccinations.

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France had vaccinated a mere 352 people by December 31, four days after starting its coronavirus jabs, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data website. Only 80 people were inoculated in the 24 hours leading up to Saturday evening, according to French data website CovidTracker.

By December 27, the UK had vaccinated more than 940,000 people since becoming the first Western country to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech jab for emergency use on December 2 and starting inoculations six days later. Germany had inoculated more than 238,000 people by January 2, nine days after rolling out its vaccination programme. 

The French vaccine programme started “very slowly” and the small number of people inoculated is “hard to defend” compared to France’s European neighbours, the country’s own National Academy of Medicine said in a statement on December 31.

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Oxford University website Our World in Data shows the number of Covid-19 vaccines administered in each country.
Oxford University website Our World in Data shows the number of Covid-19 vaccines administered in each country. © Our World in Data, University of Oxford

“If they want to mess up the vaccination programme, they’re going about it the right way,” said epidemiologist and former health ministry adviser Martin Blachier in comments to the LCI news channel on Sunday. “If I were president, I’d be very hard on the health ministry; this is the biggest fiasco we’ve ever had when it comes to public health.”

Blachier was particularly scathing about the government’s failure to set up vaccination centres. It is “mind-boggling that nothing has been organised”, he said.

Health Minister Olivier Véran suggested in late December that the government was proceeding slowly deliberately, as a means of reassuring people about the vaccine’s benefits.

“The government scored an own goal in thinking that going slowly would reassure sceptics, when in fact it only worsened their sense of distrust,” Paris-based psychologist Marie-Estelle Dupont told LCI.

Anti-vaccine sentiment is relatively widespread in France. An Ipsos poll published in November found that 46 percent of French adults said they would refuse to receive a Covid-19 vaccine – compared to 21 percent in the UK and 30 percent in Germany. A 2019 Gallup poll found that one in three French people think all vaccines are dangerous – the highest proportion of respondents to say so in 144 countries surveyed.

“What’s the most important thing?” Blachier asked. “Vaccinating the French population or dealing with people’s sensitivities?”

‘Unjustified tardiness’

French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to tackle the mounting concern in his annual New Year’s Eve address, saying he would “not allow this unjustified tardiness to continue”. Macron was sharper in private comments reported by French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche on Sunday: “Things have got to change quickly and change a lot.”

The same evening, Véran announced an accelerated timetable for vaccinations, two days after he said that he was “comfortable with” the delays. Vaccines will be offered to all “elderly people” within “a few weeks”, bringing France’s programme up to the “same level as countries that have done things differently”, he wrote on Twitter.   

Vaccine centres will be ready to inoculate “health workers age 50 and over” starting on January 4, he said. Additional vaccination centres will be ready this month to inoculate people 75 or over followed by those 65 or over, Véran continued.

This would significantly speed up France’s inoculation programme. Under the original plan, nursing home residents would be vaccinated in January followed in February by others at high risk of dying from Covid-19. Everyone else could expect to be vaccinated starting in the spring.

“We know how to organise a mass vaccination,” Véran said. “For example, 1.5 million influenza vaccinations were issued from the 1st day of the flu campaign this year.”

Prime Minister Jean Castex promised at the start of December that 1 million people would be vaccinated by the end of January. But at this point France would have to vaccinate more than 32,000 people every day until January 31 to meet this target, according to CovidTracker data.

French government spokesman Gabriel Attal told Le Parisien on Sunday that the vaccine programme is “already accelerating”. The government has received 500,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine – the only one approved for use in the EU so far – and it will continue to receive 500,000 doses at the start of every week, Attal said.

A committee of public health experts and local politicians – led by doctor and researcher Alain Fischer, who is responsible for co-ordinating France’s vaccination strategy – is expected to deliver a report to the government within days setting out the logistics of the sped-up vaccine programme.

Future options might include offering on-site vaccinations at pharmacies, allowing general practitioners to inoculate people at private offices and mobile vaccination teams – run by security forces or the Red Cross – being dispatched to hospitals, Le Journal du Dimanche reported.

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