Why is France's vaccination drive taking so long to get rolling?
Over a week after the campaign to vaccinate the entire French population against the coronavirus got going, the number of injections administered can be counted in the hundreds. That pales in comparison to France's neighbours, who also began their campaigns on 27 December. Supply is not the problem. So what, then, is the hold up?
France has 500,000 doses of the Pfizer product, the only jab currently authorised. Daily Le Monde reports, however, that no more than 140 vaccinations were carried out over the weekend, and the recipients were all doctors and nurses over the age of 50, all working in a single hospital in central Paris.
"We hope to be soon able to vaccinate up to 500 people every day," says Martin Hirsch, the boss of the Paris hospital network.
Three other institutions in the French capital are due to open vaccination centres this week. But the vaccination rate will remain disappointingly low by comparison with the performance of some of the neighbours.
Part of the problem is the French decision to prioritise the vaccination of older potential victims, those most likely to develop serious complications if infected. And since the injections are being administered on a strictly voluntary basis, the consent of each individual is required. And that takes time. Especially since the consent must be obtained in consultation with a doctor.
Potential recipients have to be informed of the nature and risks of the procedure. For many, especially those in retirement homes, the process of explanation is not always straightforward. And doctors, already under huge pressure because of the epidemic, do not have the time for the additional preparation and paperwork.
Some members of the target population have expressed their reservations about being used as guinea-pigs for a treatment which has been fast-tracked, others suffer from cognitive impairment, leaving families to decide for their older members.
The reticence shown by the general population – only 40 percent of French people polled say they plan to get vaccinated – is thus transferred to the older generation, slowing the process even further.
If the number of doses currently available nationally is more than adequate to cover the low rate of administration, there are huge regional variations.
Only 40 of the one hundred hospitals designated as centres for the departmental inoculation plans have been supplied on the basis of the 560,000 doses so far transported.
The director of a hospital in north-western France tells Le Monde: "We have the freezers for storage at minus 80°C, we have the sodium chloride needed to dilute the vaccine, we have the syringes...but no idea when we'll get the vaccine. We are in the starting blocks, but have no clue when to expect a delivery."
Health Minister Olivier Véran has promised that 50 more hospital will be supplied this week, with the remaining ten regional centres to be stocked next week.
Unfortunately, the government chose to distribute the vaccine via the network of its 94 administrative departments – which does not correspond to the national hospital network, which has 135 regions. So a parallel delivery system has had to be put in place, further slowing the procedure.
Pop-up vaccination centres
France has opted to avoid the "vaccination sheds" set up by some governments, insisting on an orderly and strictly voluntary system.
But that position may have to be adjusted.
According to Rémi Salomon, president of the board of directors of Paris public hospitals, "If we want to save lives, we're going to have to get this programme out of the hospitals quickly, probably set up some kind of vaccination centres. Because the Pfizer vaccine can't be administered by local doctors."
Salomon warns that the arrival of the so-called UK variant of the Covid virus in France further underlines the need for an acceleration of the programme.
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said he remains confident that 14 million French citizens will have been vaccinated before next summer.
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