PARIS (Reuters) – France is accelerating its COVID-19 vaccination of medical staff in hospitals after a slow initial roll-out in one of the most vaccine-sceptical countries in the world that has drawn an angry rebuke from President Emmanuel Macron.
Health Minister Olivier Veran said several thousand COVID-19 shots of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech were administered across France on Monday.
France has been slow off the mark, delivering just 516 COVID-19 inoculations during the first week of a campaign that focused on nursing home residents.
“We have decided to accelerate the campaign by widening the target group to health staff without waiting to complete the vaccination campaign in retirement homes,” Veran said during a visit to a Paris hospital.
He said some 500,000 vaccine doses would be delivered by Wednesday afternoon and that France would have one million doses available by the end of this week.
The sluggish start compared with European neighbours such as Britain and Germany has irritated Macron, who called a meeting with his prime minister and health minister on Monday evening to discuss how to speed up deployment of the vaccine.
“The president was angry at everybody,” a government source told Reuters. “We can’t afford to fail in the vaccination campaign… This need for results means we’ll get there in the end.”
Macron wanted to “put pressure on the system” and quicken the vaccine’s deployment, an Elysee official said.
“We really need to shake up the public administration,” the government source said.
Earlier, epidemiologist and government adviser Arnaud Fontanet told France Info radio things were “going too slowly”.
“But the real deadline is to reach 5-10 million (vaccinations) by the end of March, because that’s the point at which you have a real impact on the spread of the virus,” he added.
COVID-19 has killed more than 65,000 people in France, the world’s seventh-highest national toll. Even so, a survey over the weekend showed six in every 10 French citizens would refuse vaccination.
Fontanet said it would be “useful” to simplify the bureaucracy involved in the vaccination roll-out. He stopped short of saying whether a mandatory consultation with a doctor several days before getting a COVID shot was time wasted.
A slow vaccination campaign risks jeopardising France’s recovery from an unprecedented economic slump in a time of peace.
France’s National Academy of Medicine last week said the government was taking “excessive precautions”. Government officials have said vaccinating in care homes was complex logistically.
A spokesman for nursing home operator Korian said the company had been told to be ready for vaccinations at three of its sites in the Paris area on Monday but that the doses had not yet been delivered.
Britain, which has used more than a million COVID-19 vaccine shots already, has now begun vaccinating its population with the shot developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, boasting a scientific triumph.
Dominique Le Guludec, head of France’s medical regulator, said there was still insufficient data to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“We prefer to wait another 15 days if necessary to have all the data we need on safety and efficacy,” Le Guludec told BFM TV.
The EU’s medical watchdog is expected to decide on approval of a third vaccine, developed by Moderna, later this week.
France on Monday sent 12 million pupils back to school after the Christmas holidays as planned.
Restaurants, bars, museums and cinemas remain shut. It was unlikely restaurants would re-open as initially planned on Jan. 20, government minister Alain Griset said on Sunday.
(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Richard Lough; Additional reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Giles Elgood and Gareth Jones)