How slow vaccine rollout is causing frustration in French Covid hotspot

In the eastern French city of Mulhouse, still reeling from its time as the country's Covid hotspot, Anny Roth emerges smiling from a vaccination centre and grateful she has avoided the frustrations of many of her friends.

How slow vaccine rollout is causing frustration in French Covid hotspot
A vaccine centre in Mulhouse. Photo: AFP

“They all think I'm an IT expert!” the 70-year-old joked of her success at securing a rare spot on the online appointment system, which many pensioners are struggling to use.

“Everyone's asking me how I managed it. I was just lucky,” she said at a municipal sports building that opened Monday as the first public vaccination point in the city of 110,000 people.

Across France, more centres like this one are opening their doors amid a blizzard of criticism for the government of centrist President Emmanuel Macron over the slow start to the campaign, which lags behind other major European countries.

Despite the French being among the world's biggest vaccine sceptics, Mulhouse mayor Michele Lutz says demand for the jab is high locally because of the devastating first coronavirus wave in March and April.

Residents are quick to recall the constant buzz of helicopters over the city's deserted streets as patients were transferred from overwhelmed hospitals to facilities elsewhere in France and in neighbouring Germany.

Lutz says her worst moment was visiting the city's overflowing morgue where coffins were piled up in every available space.

“The vaccine has been very, very keenly awaited in Mulhouse,” she told AFP.

“We were the most affected town. This vaccine is a source of hope for the whole of the city.”

She is delighted that the first shots are going into arms and acknowledges the complexity of distributing the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which must be stored at super-cold temperatures.

SEE ALSO: MAP – Where to find your nearest vaccine centre

But she says precious time was lost as local authorities like hers clamoured for instructions from the central government.

“We've known since November that vaccinations would be possible,” said Lutz, who is from the opposition Republicans party. “All the work of coordinating, implementing and logistics could have been done a lot earlier than it was.”

With a maximum of around 200 appointments a day currently available in Mulhouse and widespread complaints about the booking system, the mayor's office is receiving regular calls from angry residents. 

German advance

Because of Mulhouse's location in the Alsace region bordering Germany, locals are also aware of quicker progress being made on the other side of the mighty Rhine river which divides the neighbours.

Germany has vaccinated 1.4 million people – 75 percent more than the roughly 800,000 people who have had a jab in France, according to the latest figures.

“Here in Alsace we have mixed feelings about Germany,” says local doctor Patrick Vogt, whose grandmother changed nationality seven times during the wars of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Local doctor Patrick Vogt. Photo: AFP

“We always admire their organisational abilities,” he added.

He says the traditional French ills of over-centralisation and bureaucracy have stifled the rollout.

“We need to change gears,” he said. “It's not good enough.”

France's other major neighbours have also started quicker: Britain has administered more than five million jabs and Italy 1.25 million, according to the website.

French defence

The government in Paris has repeatedly defended its strategy, which it acknowledges is slower.

Those currently eligible – principally the over-75s and other vulnerable categories of people – need a doctor's prescription, have to sign legal disclaimers, and are given a period to reflect on their decision.

Retirement and care homes have also been made an early priority, and gaining consent from the family or legal guardians of the infirm can take time. 

Prime Minister Jean Castex has insisted that France has “nothing to be ashamed about” and told critics in parliament recently that “you don't judge a match that is going to last 90 minutes in the first seconds”.

He also pointed out that France's testing system is among the best in Europe and that the number of daily new cases and deaths are below major rivals, including Germany, thanks to decisive government action to control the epidemic.

The government looks on course to hit a target of one million vaccinations by month-end.

But for Mulhouse doctor Vogt, time is of the essence as the country faces a possible third wave linked to the spread of more contagious variants.

“Every lost day from not vaccinating is a loss of time and chances for the patients who are going to fill up the hospitals in March and April when this wave arrives,” he warned.

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France rules people inoculated with AstraZeneca’s Covishield are ‘unvaccinated’

The lack of an EU licence for Covishield - the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in India - is leading to travellers from the UK, India and African to be technically classed as "unvaccinated" under French travel rules.

France rules people inoculated with AstraZeneca's Covishield are 'unvaccinated'
Photo: Ian Langsdon/AFP

This story has been updated. Click HERE for the latest details.

Which vaccine?

The AstraZeneca vaccine technically has two names – Vaxzevria which is produced in Europe and Covishield which is produced under licence by the Serum Institute in India.

It’s produced to the same specifications using the same ingredients, but Covishield doesn’t have a sales licence in the EU. The manufacturers presumably didn’t think this was important since their product is used mostly in India and Africa, but have now run into a problem – the EU’s vaccine passport rules specifically states that it will accept all vaccines licenced by the European Medicines Agency, which does not include Covishield.

This means that travellers from India and Africa vaccinated with it cannot use vaccine certificates for entry to the EU.

This is also a problem for some British travellers, since the UK’s vaccine programme has used large amounts of the Indian-produced AstraZeneca product.

Arrivals from the UK who are fully vaccinated with Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson or AstraZeneca’s Vaxzevria product are not affected by this.

If your vaccine certificate states only AstraZeneca, you can check the batch number.

This does not affect people who received their vaccination in France.

What does the EU say?

The Local asked the European Commission, who told us: “At present, Covishield is not authorised for placing on the market in the EU. However, it has completed the World Health Organisation Emergency Use Listing process.

“EU Member States can therefore decide to allow entry to those vaccinated with Covishield.”

In other words, it’s up to the French government to decide whether they will accept Covishield-jabbed people as “fully vaccinated” under France’s travel rules.

So what do the French say?

The Local has asked the French government if they can provide some clarity on this matter and the Interior Ministry told us: “Covishield does not appear on the list of vaccines approved by the EU.”

So in travel terms, anyone vaccinated with Covishield does not count as ‘fully vaccinated’ according to the French criteria.

Officials have been quoted as saying that France is “actively working” on the issue of Covishield’s absence from the list of accepted vaccines after the matter was raised bilaterally by India.

“We are actively considering it and working on it,” a senior diplomat told RFI.

Groups representing French citizens living overseas – who might have been vaccinated with Covishield – have also been putting pressure on the government.

Is this important?

It is, because the UK is currently on France’s orange list, which means only fully vaccinated travellers can enter France for non-essential purposes such as holidays and family visits.

READ ALSO How France’s traffic light travel system works

So if you don’t fit one of the categories for essential travel – which includes anyone permanently resident in France – the type of vaccine you have could mean the difference between being allowed in or not.

All arrivals – vaccinated or not – still need a Covid test, but non-vaccinated also need to quarantine for 7 days once here.

India is on France’s red list, which means no non-essential travel at all, even for fully vaccinated people. There is a difference in the quarantine length for vaccinated or non-vaccinated travellers, however.

Is this likely to change?

Several countries within Europe have decided to accept Covishield, accepting that it is essentially the same product as Vaxzevria, and the Serum Institute has also applied for a European sales licence. If that is granted – and there seems no reason why it would not be since AstraZeneca already has a sales licence – it would automatically be added to the list of accepted vaccines for all EU and Schengen zone countries.

Both the Indian and British governments have taken up the issue with the EU asking for Covishield to be added to the list of accepted vaccines for entry to the Bloc.

For the latest on travel rules in and out of France, head to our Travelling to France section.