A French couple, both aged 75 and retired, have helped to organise nearly 1,000 Covid-19 vaccination appointments for people living in their village and surrounding area since the beginning of March.
Rosette and François Belmonte work voluntarily with their local mairie to find slots for people who are struggling to book appointments.
They use the online booking service Doctolib to search for slots near them in Sauvian, in the Hérault department in southwestern France. As soon as one opens, they find someone who is willing to take it and organise it for them.
Mrs Belmonte told The Connexion that last week they had booked over 850 appointments and she expects this week they will pass the 1,000 mark.
There are different ways to book a vaccination appointment in France, such as online, by phone call, through a GP or pharmacy, but it can be confusing and frustrating for some.
“it is not extraordinary what we do but it does people a favour and they are happy,” Mrs Belmonte said.
“It feels like helping to save lives.
“We are organising more appointments than ever. They are opening it up to more people and we have a lot of demands, around 50 per day.”
She said that she got involved in the project almost by accident.
“At the beginning of March, the mairie of Sauvian decided to help elderly people get appointments and act as an intermediary for this.
“They invited people to sign up at the mairie and the secretary alone tried to organise the appointments, but it was not possible with all their other work.”
Mrs Belmonte said that she happened to be at the mairie one day and noticed this and offered to help out.
Now every day she sits at home with her husband - they have a computer each set up side by side - organising appointments.
“I coordinate things with my husband for checking appointments. Sometimes we work together or sometimes we take turns. We go out to do the gardening but if an appointment opens up (on Doctolib) we rush back to organise it.
It is not just searching for appointments online, they also have to phone people to ensure that the appointment times work for them and they are able to get to the place where the vaccination is.
The mairie or the municipal police are also on hand to take patients to the vaccination centres if needed.
“Every day we get a list from the mairie of people who want to be vaccinated, but more often now people who want to get vaccinated are calling me directly. The village’s GP practice is also sending us patients. Even people from other villages are phoning me.
“Now I am very well known in Sauvian and the villages around,” she said.
Mrs Belmonte was born in Sauvian and after a period of living away, moved back around 40 years ago. She worked for France’s social security as an administrative supervisor, while her husband was a postman.
She said that the vaccination campaign in France has been complicated for people with all the different types of vaccine available.
“Some people only want the Pfizer one,” she said.
But she thinks her initiative is encouraging more people to sign up to get a jab.
“It creates solidarity between people - between neighbours, family, friends.
“When someone gets vaccinated they send people they know to me to organise their vaccination. It has a bit of a snowball effect."