France under pressure to speed up Covid vaccine programme
As appointments go unfilled, experts are calling for vaccinations to be offered to all those who want it. The Prime Minister has suggested this is 'premature'
Pressure is mounting on the French government to scrap its age-oriented Covid-19 vaccination policy and open up appointments to all adults.
Prime Minister Jean Castex has insisted such a move would be 'premature' at this stage, but left the door open to a possible speeding up of the well-established rollout of inoculations. That may include bringing forward the date that the next tranche of the population becomes eligible.
Currently, all those aged over 55 can be vaccinated with any of the four vaccines being used in France at vaccination centres, pharmacies, and nurses’ or GPs’ practices. Under the existing schedule, this will be extended to all over-50s in mid-May.
The AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are currently recommended only for over-55s.
Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo told Franceinfo last week: "I believe that the age question must be let go, because it is still a scandal that doses are not used when there are many people who wish to be vaccinated."
Scientists and members of the medical community are also keen to speed up the vaccine programme.
"Flexibility must be essential,"Jean-Paul Stahl, professor of infectious medicine at the CHU of Grenoble Alpes said in an interview on BFMTV. "We have age categories, and among them there are some who do not want to be vaccinated.
"At that point, why not extend and offer vaccinations to people who want it?"
President of the Confédération des syndicats médicaux français Jean-Paul Ortiz said: "Let us quickly vaccinate those who agree and the others will come very quickly.
"I am convinced (that by opening up vaccination to a larger number), it will have a snowball effect and that it will lead to those who today are unsure choosing to get vaccinated."
The public, too, are keen to receive their doses. According to an Elabe poll for BFMTV, 70% of French people are in favour of opening the vaccination to all adults. It also found that, in a traditionally vaccine-sceptic nation, the acceptance of anti-Covid vaccines is at 62%.
Calls to speed up the process come after it was suggested that up to 270,000 appointments remain unfilled.
That figure comes from the website Vite ma Dose, set up to help people book an appointment. It has, unsurprisingly, prompted a number of critical headlines.
But founder Guillaume Rozier, who also developed the Covid Tracker website, said the headline number includes the number of available slots for next 50 days at every one of the thousands of vaccine centres and pharmacies across France.
He added that the number of slots may not correspond with the number of available doses. GPs and pharmacies are opening up slots and then closing them when the doses they have are taken.
The increase in free slots corresponds with an increase in deliveries of vaccines, including the first part of the 7.5million doses of Pfizer vaccine and the first deliveries of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Meanwhile, the head of Doctorlib, which offers online appointments for vaccines, said that opening up the programme to the wider public risks overwhelming vaccination centres.
Stanislas Niox-Chateau said that 200,000 to 250,000 appointments are made every day on the platform, with an average delay between booking an appointment and having the injection of less than 10 days.
“It's difficult to go faster on Pfizer and Moderna,” he said. “There are still slots available for AstraZeneca”, among doctors and pharmacists.
While some 45,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are going into patients' arms everyday, "we could make 100,000 to 150,000," he estimated.
Currently, the vaccination programme in France is open to around 25million people.
About "14.3 million have received a first dose, so that's more than 20% of people in this country. Which is good but still far from the mark," according to Professor Alain Fischer, who is in charge of the vaccine rollout.
The government is monitoring the situation closely, but for the time being, it says there are no plans to change strategy. On Tuesday, Health Minister Olivier Véran said the priority remains to vaccinate millions of eligible people who have not yet received a first injection.