France vows to speed up vaccinations after slow rollout 'scandal'

·3-min read

France's government on Monday promised to ramp up its vaccination campaign against Covid-19 after inoculating just a few hundred people in the first week, prompting accusations of a scandal.

The French campaign had rolled out just over 500 doses as of January 1, with critics comparing that figure with the 200,000 people immunised in Germany in a similar timeframe, after the EU-wide rollout began a week ago.

"What we have seen is a government scandal," Jean Rottner, the head of France's Grand Est eastern region, which has seen a particularly sharp rise in infections, told France 2 television.

"Things need to accelerate," said Rottner, a member of the right-wing Republicans (LR) opposition party. "The French need clarity and firm messages from a government that knows where it is going. It is not giving this impression."

President Emmanuel Macron, under pressure to take personal responsibility, met officials including Prime Minister Jean Castex to discuss the rollout.

Under-fire Health Minister Olivier Veran wrote on Twitter there would be a "rapid increase in the vaccination campaign" with the focus on elderly in care homes and health workers aged over 50.

He later said during a hospital visit that France had already drastically increased numbers and by Wednesday 100 hospitals would be able to vaccinate health workers.

"Today, we will have carried out several thousand vaccinations throughout the country. The pace will increase," he added, without giving figures.

- Not a 'family stroll' -

Scepticism about vaccines makes the government's task harder.

Just 40 percent of French want to take the vaccine compared with 77 percent in Britain, according to an opinion poll last week by Ipsos Global Advisor in partnership with the World Economic Forum.

In his New Year address to the nation, Macron had pledged there would be no "unjustifiable delays" in the rollout.

Two days later, the government-friendly Journal du Dimanche newspaper carried scathing quotes reportedly from Macron over the speed of the rollout.

A pace at the level of "a family stroll" was not "worthy of the moment nor of the French" the newspaper quoted Macron as saying.

"I am at war in the morning, noon, evening and night," Macron, who recently recovered from Covid-19, reportedly said.

"I expect the same commitment from all. This won't do. It must change quickly and firmly."

The government has also been mocked over the creation of a group of 35 French citizens -- due to be randomly chosen later on Monday -- to follow the government's vaccination strategy.

"Is France getting the dunce's hat in Europe for vaccinations?" asked Le Monde.

The deputy president of the far-right National Rally (RN), Jordan Bardella, said France had become the "laughing stock of the world".

Dominique le Guludec, head of France's High Health Authority (HAS) defended the strategy to target the elderly saying they were the ones most at risk from hospitalisation or death.

"You have to keep calm and prioritise, because if you vaccinate a lot of people but not the right ones, it will take months to reduce hospitalisations and deaths," she told BFM-TV.

- Macron the 'generalissimo' -

The EU has approved only one vaccine -- developed by Pfizer and BioNTech -- while another from Sanofi and GSK has been held up and is not due to be ready later in the year.

Green politician Yannick Jadot accused the government of banking on the Sanofi vaccine -- a claim the government has vehemently denied.

Jadot told Radio Classique Macron needed to stop shifting responsibility for the botched rollout.

"The president appointed himself the generalissimo of the war against Covid but puts the blame on those in the frontline," he said.