How France is changing its Covid-19 vaccine strategy after anger at slow start

Faced with criticism for the slow rate at which France’s population is being vaccinated against coronavirus, Emmanuel Macron’s government has changed its stance and announced a number of changes to speed up the process. But was the French government’s cautious rollout justifiable?

How France is changing its Covid-19 vaccine strategy after anger at slow start
Photos: AFP

What was the problem with the original plan?

France’s nationwide vaccination campaign began on December 27th but by January 3rd barely more than 500 people had received the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine – although health workers vaccinated over the weekend were missing from this data.

Many health professionals have openly criticised this delay in France’s planned mass inoculation, especially when compared to that of its European neighbours.


In Germany, where the first vaccines were also administered on December 27th, more than 230,000 citizens had received a first dose by January 3rd, while in the UK, where vaccinations began on December 8th, the one million mark has been passed. In Italy the tally is at around 80,000.

IN DETAIL: France's original plans for its Covid-19 vaccine rollout

“We are the very last on the European list,” William Dab, France’s former Director General of Health, told Le Parisien, adding that if France continues to vaccinate only 300 people a week “we’ll still be doing it in 5,000 years”.

“The whole healthcare community doesn’t understand why there is such a gap with Germany: they vaccinate 20,000 people per day, we’re at 50,” Professor Mehdi Mejdoubi, head of Valenciennes Hospital in northern France, told TV channel BFM on Saturday.

So why has France’s rollout been so slow?

According to a recent poll by Ipsos Global Advisor in partnership with the World Economic Forum, just 40 percent of French people want to take the Covid-19 vaccine.

Fear of side effects is the reason most often given for not wanting it.

France has historically high levels of vaccine scepticism, although vaccine rates do not always reflect this. In 2019 10 million people got the flu vaccine, roughly one in seven of the population.

Is scepticism the only reason why there’s a hold-up?

Many doctors argue that bureaucratic processes are also causing delays in how quickly the vaccine can be delivered to metropolitan France’s 64.8 million people.

“We must shorten the procedures as much as possible,” said Jean-François Mattei, head of France’s Academy of Medicine.

“Regarding the consent system for the elderly in Ehpad (nursing homes), there is no need to wait several days.”

Up until now, seniors in an Ehpad establishment first get an appointment with a doctor who explains everything relating to the vaccine in order to get consent from the patient, and then a second appointment to administer the vaccine, which can lengthen the process by four days.

France stands out for being the only country in Europe with this consultation system.

“When an elderly person to whom you offer a vaccine says yes, there should be no hesitation, the epidemic is taking us by surprise, the emergency is here today. We have to change gear,' added Mattei.

France’s government has also justified the delay with the fact that health authorities wanted to first vaccinate elderly residents in nursing homes, which represent a third of the deaths linked to Covid-19. In other countries, all healthcare workers have been immediately vaccinated.

What changes now?

After close consultation with France’s disgruntled medical community, French Health Minister Olivier Véran announced in a series of tweets on December 31st that his government would accelerate and modify its vaccine rollout strategy.

From Monday January 4th, health workers over the age of 50 will be able to be vaccinated in the country’s more than 100 CHUs (university hospitals).

Before the start of February, the vaccine will be made available in city and town centre locations, firstly for those over 75 years of age, and then those over 65 years.

On Tuesday morning Véran said 500-600 new vaccination centres will be raised before the end of January. He also announced that domestic aid workers and firemen over 50 would be able to get the jab alongside health workers.


The vaccination will also be delivered to care homes, health centres and other clinics and large medical establishments with close links to local communities.

Currently, up to 500,000 doses arrive in France every week.

However, France’s Health Minister continues to insist on a strategy and criteria that favour those most at risk, rather than including a wider population bracket which allows France to catch up with the rest of Europe, or health professionals of all ages on the frontline in the fight against Covid-19.

Regarding the slow consent system for Ehpad residents, Véran said that the vaccination could be now be administered immediately upon consent during the first and now only appointment, without having to wait for a reflection period of several days.

Véran went on to conclude that the vaccination campaign will gain momentum, as did Prime Minister Jean Castex, who stated “in the months to come, the situation will be completely balanced in terms of vaccinations across Europe”.


The French Health Minister also pointed out that countries such as neighbouring Belgium and Holland were yet to begin their own vaccination campaigns. 

This week, 300 nursing homes out of the country’s 14,000 will receive the vaccine, with many more promised for the following week.

For his part, President Emmanuel Macron promised that he “will not allow an unjustified delays to set in” anymore, stating that up until now France’s vaccine rollout has had the pace of a family walk”.

Whether these new measures will be enough for there to be a noticeable change we’ll have to wait and see, but there has been a sense up until now in France that – whether due to unnecessary bureaucratic processes or excessive government caution pandering to vaccine scepticism – the vaccine rollout has been too slow.  

Member comments

  1. 40% skeptics is no excuse for depriving the remaining 60%. Skeptics will help reduce the lines, and when 60% of the popultion is vaccinated, that will be enough herd immunity to greatly reduce transmission of the virus anyway.

  2. Bill Adams you got the numbers the wrong way round, also there’s no information on what demographic the majority of sceptics belong to. Anecdotally I would say it’s almost certainly the older people.

  3. Almost a scoffing reference to this slowness on UK tv news this evening, from someone who has no superior axe to grind, the commentator was just horrified at this slowness.
    When I first read of this consultation process I lost faith in anything being done quickly.

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Experts warn of high levels of flu in France this winter

Experts have warned of a particularly bad flu epidemic this winter in France due to a combination of lowered immune systems and 'vaccine apathy' - urging high-risk groups to get their shot as soon as the flu vaccination campaign begins in October.

Experts warn of high levels of flu in France this winter

France’s annual flu vaccine campaign will officially get under way on October 18th this year – and medical experts have warned that this year’s season may be a bad one amid fears of “vaccine apathy”.

When, where and how to get flu shots and Covid boosters in France this autumn

Immunologist Alain Fischer, who chaired France’s Conseil d’orientation de la stratégie vaccinale throughout the Covid-19 pandemic said that the high number of flu cases in Australia and the southern hemisphere in its winter were “a warning sign” that this winter’s flu, coupled with rising cases of Covid-19, could lead to a sharp rise in hospitalisations again in the winter.

“For two years, influenza has been kept at bay, thanks to the barrier measures we have put in place against Covid,” he told Le Parisien. 

“This year, it will be difficult to maintain the same level of protection: masks, distancing, intensive hand washing … Faced with this relaxation, there is a serious risk of flu epidemic.”

Between two million and six million people contract flu every winter in France. The infection is responsible for between 4,000 and 6,000 deaths every year, usually among people aged 65 and over. But in ‘bad’ flu years, that mortality figure can rise rapidly.

READ ALSO When, where and how to get flu shots and Covid boosters this autumn in France

The country, meanwhile, is at the start of what is being described as an “eighth wave” of Covid, and the Haute Autorité de santé recommends the eligible, vulnerable people ensure they are vaccinated against both viruses as early as possible. “A Covid-flu cohabitation is not a good thing,”  Fischer said. “It is synonymous with a very high number of hospitalisations. 

“Hence the objective of two strong vaccination campaigns – Covid and flu – especially for the most vulnerable.”

“The double injection is very good, and practical for patients. But I think that we should not wait, especially vulnerable people. It is a mistake to think that you will get your Covid booster when the flu vaccine is here – the Covid jab should not be delayed.”

Currently less than 40 percent of people eligible for a fourth Covid vaccine have received their latest dose.

Dual-strain Covid-19 vaccines designed to combat both delta and omicron variants will be available in France from October 3rd.

READ ALSO France approves new vaccines for Covid Omicron sub-variants

“It is quite possible to get your Covid injection in early October and flu vaccine in late October – you will need both anyway,” Fischer said.

The Haute Autorité de Santé recommends influenza vaccination for the following groups:

  • people aged 65 and over; 
  • people with chronic diseases; 
  • pregnant women;
  • people suffering from obesity (BMI equal to or greater than 40 kg/m 2 );
  • Infants under 6 months at risk of serious influenza;
  • Families and others close to immunocompromised people; 
  • home help workers caring for vulnerable individuals.

For anyone in these groups, the flu vaccine is 100 percent covered by health insurance and delivered free of charge to the pharmacy, on presentation of a voucher.