Covid-19 in France

France mobilises army as Macron vows to speed up Covid vaccine campaign

French President Emmanuel Macron visits a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Valenciennes, northern France, 23 March 2021.
French President Emmanuel Macron visits a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Valenciennes, northern France, 23 March 2021. REUTERS - POOL

President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday that France would accelerate its Covid-19 vaccination campaign at the weekend with plans to open 35 army-run centres around the country. 

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After a slow start, difficulty acquiring promised doses, inexplicable laxity in administering those that had arrived and a new and highly unpopular limited lockdown affecting a third of the population, France saw top officials on a number of fronts pledging to kick the country’s vaccine campaign into high gear.

“From Saturday we will accelerate the vaccination campaign,” Macron said during a visit to a vaccination centre in Valenciennes, northern France. “First we will go look for all the people over 75 who have not yet been vaccinated, and we will also go down one age bracket and also make vaccination appointments available to those over 70.” 

Macron also announced that beginning this week, pharmacies would be able to vaccinate people 55 and up with comorbidities, and 60,000 extra doses for the northern Hauts-de-France region, one of the most affected.

Army to run mass vaccination centres

Macron’s announcements came after Health Minister Olivier Véran said Monday the country was throwing its military might into opening up 35 mass vaccination centres at various places around the country.

“The army’s health service will work on developing a certain number of large vaccination centres,” Veran said.

So far, the jabs have been dispensed in community halls, hospitals, doctors’ offices and pharmacies. France has lagged behind countries like Britain and the United States, which have set up mass vaccination sites. 

“There are no holidays or weekends in this battle,” Macron said in remarks posted on social media. “We have to vaccinate every day."

Industry Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said the centres would be fully operational within days and that the government was ready to move onto a new phase of mass vaccination now that it has completed its drive to inoculate those most vulnerable in homes for the old and dependent. 

The Paris authorities had initially rejected the idea of using mass vaccination centres, explaining that a similar project to vaccinate huge numbers against the H1N1 flu variant in 2009 had been a costly mistake.

As things stand, France has administered some 8.8 million doses so far, compared with over 30 million in Britain and nearly 11 million in Germany. The government's target is to administer 10 million first injections by mid-April.

Factories mobilised

France will also produce vaccines in five of its factories by the summer, Secretary of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune said.

“You will see the first site becoming operational around the end of March, meaning in a few days,” Beaune said. “Gradually, between March, April, May and until the start of the summer five French manufacturing sites producing different vaccines.” 

Beaune added it was not yet known how many doses would be produced. He said the development had a European aspect.

“Today, most vaccines for France are made in Belgium and the Netherlands, for example,” Beaune said. “It’s in our interest to mutualise about 50 European manufacturing plants.” 

Looking for a good news story

France’s campaign got off to a slow start in late December and January. New setbacks with limited deliveries and blood clot concerns over the AstraZeneca vaccine slowed down the campaign again in recent weeks, as hospital beds filled up

The government has complained that delays and shortfalls in vaccine deliveries, particularly supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine, have hampered its campaign.

Pannier-Runacher has confirmed that BioNTech/Pfizer will provide the majority of doses to be administered over the coming weeks, underlining supply difficulties and a drop in public confidence for the AstraZeneca treatment.

Macron’s administration will be keen for a positive story about its handling of the epidemic.

Earlier in the winter, it opted not to impose a preventative lockdown to limit the spread of more contagious variants of the new coronavirus, which have now become dominant and prompted the government to place a third of the country, including the Paris region, under new four-week restrictions. 

(with newswires)

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