PARIS (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to avoid unjustifiable delays in efforts to immunise citizens against Covid-19 following criticism over the slow pace of the inoculation campaign.
But in his New Year's address to the nation on Thursday (Dec 31), Mr Macron also struck a defensive note, saying he would let "no-one play with the safety" of the vaccination drive.
With France's vaccination programme so far paling in comparison to many other European Union countries, Mr Macron - who has himself just recovered from Covid-19 - is under pressure to step up the pace.
Since Sunday, fewer than 200 people have been given the Pfizer-BioNTech jab in France, compared to 78,000 in Germany.
The government had defended the pace, saying that officials were taking time to win over a vaccine-sceptical nation by giving patients time to consider their choices.
But shortly before Mr Macron's speech, Health Minister Olivier Veran announced plans to expand the campaign which so far has solely targeted care-home residents and health workers aged over 65.
Dr Veran said that from Monday health workers aged over 50 could also get the jab - much sooner than initially planned.
The race to immunise the population gained increased urgency following the announcement on Thursday that a South African variant of coronavirus, feared to be more contagious, had been detected in France.
The news came less than a week after France confirmed it had also recorded its first case of a new strain blamed for a spike of infections in Britain.
The pandemic has claimed 64,632 lives in France, where bars, restaurants and cultural and sporting venues remain closed two weeks after the end of a second nationwide lockdown.
"This year 2020 has been difficult," Mr Macron, who was forced by the virus to put his reform drive on the back burner, acknowledged. "But together we emerge more united."
He said the coronavirus will continue to weigh on the country for a few months until vaccinations are ramped up, pledging that the crisis will not stop the government pursuing economic, security and environmental reforms.
"The first few months of the year will be difficult, and the epidemic will continue to weigh a lot on the life of our country until at least the spring," Mr Macron said in his address.
France will rise to the challenge and pursue reforms to protect the environment and biodiversity, boost security, reward work, and fight against discrimination, the president said.
Sixteen months ahead of the next presidential election, Mr Macron needs to find the right balance between protecting people against the coronavirus and revitalising an economy that has contracted by about a 10th because of lockdowns and other restrictions aimed at stemming the pandemic.
While some European nations such as Germany have closed non-essential shops again, France lifted the country's second lockdown in mid-December and replaced it with a curfew. Restaurants, museums, cinemas, theatres, gyms, and amusement parks remain shut.
Two nationwide lockdowns earlier last year severely dented the economy, with the government predicting an 11 per cent contraction in 2020, and a 6 per cent rebound in 2021.
"Hope is there in this vaccine that human ingenuity has brought about in just one year," Mr Macron said, adding that it will enable France to invent a stronger economy as soon as the spring.