President Emmanuel Macron is to hold a meeting about the country’s vaccination campaign today - as health experts defend the strategy to stagger vaccinations slowly.
President Macron will meet with Prime Minister Jean Castex and Health Minister Olivier Véran and other relevant ministers at the Élysée this afternoon. The exact details of the meeting have not yet been announced, but it is likely to focus on the speed of the country’s ongoing vaccination campaign.
France has received criticism from some for the lack of speed of its vaccine roll-out, including from President Macron himself, and leading geneticist Axel Kahn, who has called the slow start a "disaster".
So far, a little over 500 people have received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in France, with “no side-effects reported”, according to medical safety agency l’Agence nationale de sécurité du médicament et des produits de santé (ANSM).
This compares to 238,000 people in Germany, which started its vaccination campaign one day before France; and 1 million in the UK, which began its campaign on December 8.
The aim in France is to roll-out the vaccine slowly, eventually “catching up” with other nations, with a view to vaccinating the most-vulnerable and priority 15 million - 20 million people by mid-June.
Dominique Le Guludec, president of health authority la Haute autorité de santé (HAS), told BFMTV today that the Moderna vaccine should “arrive in France this week”.
She also explained why the government had started its vaccination plan by prioritising people aged over 65, and why the roll-out is being staggered, and appears slow compared to some.
She said: “We must stay calm and stick to our priorities, because if we vaccine a lot of people, but not the right ones, it will take us months to reduce hospitalisations and deaths. We must vaccinate those who need it the most.
“All the vaccines that are effective, and that have market authorisation for use and that work on people, will be used.”
Director of the regional health agency ARS Ile-de-France, Aurélien Rousseau, has also told news service FranceInfo: “Giving the vaccine to everyone at the same time would only create inequality. We must prioritise. Age is a factor of risk.”
Mr Rousseau made the comments after he met with the health minister to discuss the current vaccination situation last week.
He said: “Olivier Véran told us again that the vaccination strategy is moving forward in strides. Firstly, vaccinations for everyone in elderly care homes who wants one will happen by the end of January, because we have seen 20,000 deaths in care homes.
“This is a logistical challenge, because there are 8,000 establishments in France...the care of health professionals aged over 50 is also a factor.”
France began vaccinating hospital and healthcare workers aged over 50 on Friday January 1, ahead of schedule. These had originally been intended to have the vaccine from February onwards.
Mr Rousseau said that France’s apparently-slow roll-out of the vaccine was “a choice that had been discussed in Parliament”.
He said: “The chosen strategy is to target the people at-risk, by building trust with them. Requiring transparent consent is paramount. We must continue to build trust.”
Currently people having the vaccination in France are asked to give their informed and written consent before being vaccinated.
The government has said this is crucial to build trust and transparency in a country that has been shown as highly sceptical of vaccination, with a recent poll from Odoxa-Backbone Consulting for FranceInfo and Le Figaro newspaper finding that just 40% of people in France wanted the vaccine.
But critics have said this is slowing the process down further.
Frédéric Adnet, medical director of emergency service the SAMU of Seine-Saint-Denis, and the head of emergency at the Avicenne hospital in Bobigny, last week said that France is “the laughing stock of the entire world” as a result of what he says is the “obvious delay” in rolling out the vaccine.
He said: “This morning I looked at the global statistics on vaccination levels, and we are the last. Not only in Europe, but across the whole world. In my opinion, it is catastrophic. There has been a delay in starting, which is due, in my view, to administrative procedures which are too heavy, when we should be treating this like any other medication.
“We should vaccinate against Covid the same way we vaccinate against ‘flu, and stop all these precautionary procedures before we vaccinate people.
“It is becoming a joke, we are starting to become ridiculous. I think our strategy was right [at the beginning]. Start by vaccinating the most vulnerable people, because we will start saving lives. And in the second phase, we should try to stop the epidemic by vaccinating everyone.
“What I didn’t expect, was that by vaccinating the most vulnerable, we have this heavy [admin] around it, consent, medical visits, thinking time...which makes it inefficient because we can’t vaccinate patients en masse. I think we should simplify it completely.”
Some have suggested that France should set up “vaccinodromes”, as other countries such as Germany have done, to make vaccination easier to roll out. These are public spaces - such as gymnasiums and exhibition halls - that have been transformed into vaccination centres.
So far France has not done this and has kept the vaccine within healthcare units and hospitals.
Some healthcare experts have criticised this approach and said France should speed up its campaign.
Dr Mehdi Mejdoubi, head of the hospital unit in Valenciennes (Nord), told BFMTV. "The only solution is to vaccinate quickly”, while infectologist Dr Jean-Paul Stahl told newspaper Le Parisien: “We need mass vaccination.”
Government spokesperson Gabriel Attal told newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche that while “giant ‘vaccinodromes’ kilometres away” may not be necessary in France, “in the long-term, [we may see] sites close to people’s homes [open] in villages”.
These could open during the next stage of vaccination, for vulnerable people no matter their age or health condition, which potentially includes 14 million people, he said. Keeping vaccinations close to home could also allow the patient-GP links to remain strong, he said.
People’s trust in GPs is one way the government is aiming to raise confidence in the vaccine.
Despite the apparent lack of support for vaccinations in France, and the gradual roll-out across the population, some people have told FranceInfo that they are very keen to receive the jab, and called for as many people as possible to get it.
One Paris resident, named Marie, said: “Vaccination has proven itself for serious illnesses. If we do not vaccinate everyone, we will never reach immunity, and stop the virus.”
Another, Cheral, said: “I am confident. It’s true that we haven’t had much time with this vaccine, but we have had enough time to see that Covid isn’t good. We have to evaluate the risks and advantages. I believe that the risk of Covid is much greater than the risk of the vaccine.”