Beset by miscues, France scrambles to catch up on vaccines

A doctor administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine to a fellow doctor on Jan 5, 2021, at the University Hospital Centre of Lille, France.
A doctor administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine to a fellow doctor on Jan 5, 2021, at the University Hospital Centre of Lille, France.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON - France has vowed to speed up the administration of Covid-19 vaccines, following widespread national outrage over the government's slow vaccination campaign.

In a significant reversal of their approach, the authorities in Paris have announced plans to open up to 600 vaccination centres throughout the country and offer free jabs to anyone aged 75 and above.

"We are going to amplify, accelerate and simplify our vaccination strategy," France's embattled Health Minister Olivier Veran told the media.

But the task of catching up with vaccination rates achieved by some of France's key European neighbours such as Britain or Germany remains daunting.

And equally large is the damage inflicted on the credibility of French President Emmanuel Macron, who plans to kickstart his re-election campaign this year.

Unlike Britain, which with a population almost identical in size to that of France has already vaccinated well over a million people, the French authorities have managed to vaccinate precisely 516 patients during the first week of their campaign, a similar number to what Germany administers in around 30 minutes of each working day.

The authorities explain that the chief reason for this astonishingly low performance is deep-seated suspicions among ordinary French citizens about the vaccines' safety.

According to Ipsos, one of the country's top opinion pollsters, just four in 10 French people say they intend to receive a coronavirus vaccine, the lowest score of any developed country; by contrast, 70 per cent of Germans and 77 per cent of Britons say that they will get immunised.

As a result, the French government adopted a deliberately slow vaccine roll-out, designed to first reassure the public about the jabs before offering them to the population at large; the battle against the virus would start with a fight for the minds of French men and women.

A decision was taken that care homes for the elderly will be targeted first.

Every person was asked for consent and had to sign a form before the vaccine was administered; the form extended to 45 pages. And a qualified doctor had to supervise the administration of each vaccine.

Professor Alain Fischer, the French government's vaccination coordinator and a distinguished biologist, initially appeared to take pride in the slow pace of the immunisation campaign: This, he claimed, gave France "the opportunity to do things well in terms of security, effectiveness, organisation and ethics".

The strategy was a disaster at every level.

It did not reassure doubters and sceptics.

A French national TV crew, which followed a medical team into a retirement home, discovered that less than a quarter of the residents had given their consent to the vaccination, with many elderly still suspicious of "what's inside those tubes".

Meanwhile, France's coronavirus infection rates rose sharply, and nobody could explain why the vaccination campaigns launched throughout Europe somehow failed to touch France's main cities, even though the country is taking delivery of around 500,000 doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer each week.

The political backlash has been fierce.

"Is France getting the dunce's hat in Europe for vaccinations?" said the influential Le Monde daily, which branded the whole experience a "fiasco". Even France's National Academy of Medicine blamed the government for taking "excessive precautions".

With criticism snowballing, officials close to Mr Macron let it be known that he is "furious" with the pace of vaccinations, which he dismissed as "not worthy of France".

The President also called a special crisis meeting at the start of the week, with Prime Minister Jean Castex and other ministers to discuss the vaccine roll-out.

The response follows a traditional pattern in France, where presidents regularly claim credit for policy successes but pin the blame for failures on their ministers.

However, the snag for Mr Macron is that he has a reputation for micro-managing every facet of government policy, so it is more difficult for him to claim no responsibility for what has passed.

Either way, France is now in a race to catch up. The establishment of vaccination centres in key towns and cities represents a complete reversal from the previous strategy. Consent forms are to be simplified and may be discarded.

Doctors have also been allowed to supervise a few nurses administering the vaccine at the same time. And the pool of those eligible to be vaccinated has now been expanded considerably.

But as they race ahead, the authorities seem to be stumbling from one controversy to the next.

Mr Gabriel Attal, the government spokesman, promises that France will inoculate 14 million people over the next six months. Yet Mr Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, the transport minister, put the figure at 26 million.

Meanwhile, most ordinary Frenchmen and women are waiting for the sight of even one vaccination centre.