The French government has been accused of pandering to anti-vaxxers after figures showed that only a few hundred people had received a jab several days after the country’s vaccine programme began.
Health officials said France is setting out for “a marathon, not a sprint” and that they are going slowly, in part, because of high levels of public scepticism about the vaccine.
Only around 40% of people in France have said they are willing to be vaccinated, according to a recent poll. The figure has dropped since October, when just over half of French people said they were happy to be vaccinated. Willingness to have the vaccine is reportedly 77% in Britain and 69% in the US.
France started administering the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Sunday, beginning with staff and residents in care homes and those considered at risk of developing severe symptoms of the virus. It is the only country insisting that those offered the vaccine give their written consent after being informed of possible contraindications.
However, fewer than 100 people were vaccinated in the first three days. By Wednesday evening, only 332 people had received the vaccine, according to health ministry officials. The ministry has said the aim is to vaccinate 1 million elderly and at-risk people in January, requiring more than 31,200 vaccinations every day.
The health minister, Olivier Véran, admitted that France was vaccinating more slowly than other countries and suggested this was a deliberate policy to enable an information campaign rather than the result of a lack of vaccines or a logistical failure.
“We have the same number of vaccine doses as our German neighbours, we have the same aims and we will have the same results,” Véran told French television. “It’s taking a while to get off the ground … I don’t confuse speed with haste,” he added.
The president, Emmanuel Macron, and ministers have promised the vaccine will not be obligatory and officials have assured the public there will be no list compiled of those who refuse to have the Covid-19 jab. However, Macron said people should be guided by “reason and science”. “The vaccine is not obligatory. Have confidence in our scientists and doctors,” he said.
In his new year address on Thursday, Macron vowed to avoid “unjustifiable delays” to vaccinations but also struck a defensive note, saying he would let “no one play with the safety” of the campaign.
Axel Kahn, a leading geneticist and head of the National League Against Cancer, told Europe 1 radio that France’s vaccine strategy was wrong. “It is not suited to a situation that is so dangerous,” he said.
Philippe Juvin, head of the casualty ward at the Georges-Pompidou hospital in Paris, agreed. “As an individual, I would like to be vaccinated to set an example and show people that we don’t die from the vaccine, we die from Covid. And when we don’t die, we can get severe forms of it that are very disabling,” Juvin told CNews television.
Opposition leaders said the slowness of the vaccination programme made France the “dunce” of Europe. Damien Abad, leader of the centre-right opposition Les Républicains in the Assemblée Nationale, demanded an urgent meeting with the health minister.
In a letter, other opposition critics wrote: “Mass vaccination is the ultimate means of seeing our country emerge from the damaging economic situation caused by the health crisis. Yet France is vaccinating 10,000 times slower than the UK.”
They added: “France cannot be one of the last countries to get vaccinated and yet that’s the picture we’re facing today.”
Alain Fischer, the government official overseeing France’s vaccination programme, told Europe 1 the country had chosen to prioritise the elderly and vulnerable, as opposed to health professionals, as in other countries. “There is no good or bad choice … These are small details that will seem ridiculous in two or three months,” he said.
Critics say this hesitation is feeding conspiracy theories and anti-vaxxer sentiment. Nathan Peiffer-Smadja, an infection specialist at Paris’s Bichat hospital, said the scientific data was clear. “The vaccine is safe and efficient. Like many of my colleagues, I think we should be giving the vaccines quicker in order to control the epidemic more rapidly. At the rate we’re going, we’ll still be in lockdown in 2022,” he tweeted.
France reported 26,457 new confirmed cases on Wednesday in 24 hours, but attributed the rise to increased testing. There were 304 deaths in hospital. The number of positive tests remains low, at 2.9%.