6 reasons France’s Covid vaccine rollout has been so slow

6 reasons France's Covid vaccine rollout has been so slow
Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP
Is it the fault of anti-vaxxers, the government, supply problems or even Brexit? It's not really in doubt that the beginning of France's Covid vaccine programme has been slow, but what are the factors that have caused this?

On Tuesday, February 23rd, 2,656,447 people in France have received a Covid injection, of which 1, 319, 292 have received both doses and are therefore fully vaccinated – a considerable improvement on the early weeks of the rollout when just a few hundred people had received the injection, but still a long way behind countries like Israel, Malta and the UK, at least when it comes to first doses.

In other areas of pandemic management such as mass testing and the test and trace programme France has performed well, so what has gone wrong with the rollout?

Here are six factors that have influenced the slow start.

1. Supply problems 

France opted to join the EU bulk purchasing scheme of vaccines, which as has been widely reported ran into trouble when AstraZeneca said it was not able to supply as many doses as expected.

France also opted to wait for the European medical regulator to give approval for use for the Pfizer BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines before its own medical regulator made a recommendation, which delayed the start of the vaccine programme until the end of December.

Vaccine doses administered per 100,000 of the population. Graphic: Our world in data

These issues affected all EU countries that joined the joint purchase scheme, but since vaccine rollouts began several other EU countries, notably Denmark and Malta, have forged ahead with the rollout while France trails towards the back of the EU class.

2. First dose v second dose

When organising the rollout some countries, including the UK, have decided to delay the second dose of the vaccine for up to 12 weeks, which has allowed them to push ahead with giving first doses.

France, on the other hand, has decided to stick to the manufacturer’s recommendation of 3-4 weeks between doses, which has limited the number of first doses it is able to give.

As of February 23rd, France had actually vaccinated more people – with both doses – than the UK with 1.3 million fully inoculated in France compared to less than 500,000 recorded in the UK. However looking at first doses the UK is miles ahead – 18 million first injections compared to France’s 2.6 million.  

But even while accounting for a shortage of supplies and some supplies held back for a second dose, France seems to have taken delivery of many more vaccine doses than it has administered.

In the below chart the grey blocks represent vaccines delivered (or promised for dates in the future) to France while the blue lines represent first and second doses given.

According to the French health ministry, 7.7 million doses of the vaccine have been received in total by February 23rd, while only 3.9 million injections have been given (2.6 million first doses and 1.3 million second doses).

Questioned about this discrepancy by several journalists including The Local columnist John Lichfield, the health ministry said that it operates a system of flux tendu (just-in-time) deliveries. It has no strategic or hidden stocks.

However, to ensure smooth and secure supplies, they said they operate three different  “reservoirs”: a central bank of doses for care homes; several hundred thousand kept in 100 distribution points for local vaccine centres; and a “delta” of doses in the process of being thawed.

It has since been reported that this complicated system is in the process of being simplified.

3. Appointment scarcity

Many people have reported great difficulty in securing appointments at vaccine centres.

At present only those in certain groups are eligible to be vaccinated, including the over 75s and those with serious health conditions, but numerous eligible readers of The Local have reported great difficulties in securing an appointment slot, with some trying every day for weeks only to be confronted with phone lines ringing out and websites showing all appointments taken.

READ ALSO Unanswered phones and long waits – the frustrations of getting a Covid vaccine in France

The situation varies quite widely across the country.  In general those in cities have found it easier to secure a vaccine slot while those in départements that have a large population of retirees – including Alpes-Maritimes and Dordogne – reporting huge problems and subsequent frustration.

4. Weekend effect

While many countries have decided that a public health emergency warrants a 7-day-a-week approach, France’s vaccination stats still see a noticeable drop at weekends.

The average number of injections given in a day now stands at around 120,000 but on Saturdays and Sundays it frequently drops to around half that.

IN NUMBERS Why France needs to drastically speed up its vaccine programme

Even if the weekend problem is solved, French data scientist Guillaume Rozier, founder of the Covid Tracker site, estimates that France needs to be vaccinating 520,000 people a day if it is to reach its target of having all adults vaccinated by the end of August.

5. Vaccine hesitancy 

Repeated polling has shown that France is one of the most vaccine-sceptic countries in the world, and the first-hand experience of a pandemic does not seem to have changed this.

Polls at the beginning of January showed that only 40 percent of people were definitely planning to get vaccinated, although this percentage has since increased to between 50 and 55 percent.

Polling suggests that vaccine sceptics tend to be younger, so this is not thought to be having a big effect on the current vaccine take-up, which is currently largely targeted at the elderly and those with serious health conditions, although some polling suggests that the 80 percent of Ehpad nursing home residents who have so far received at least one dose of the vaccine represents nearly all of those who are willing.

READ ALSO How worried does France need to be about its vaccine sceptics?

Whether the younger age groups see more widespread vaccine refusal remains to be seen, but knowledge of the widespread scepticism may explain the government’s cautious approach to the programme – in particular the decision not to risk delaying the second dose and the decision to only licence the AstraZeneca vaccine for the under 65s, although ministers say they are only following scientific advice.

READ ALSO Several French hospitals pause AstraZeneca vaccines as temporary side effects leave many staff needing sick leave

6. Pharmacies kept out of the loop… until now

Vaccines in France are at present delivered in specialist vaccine centres, in hospitals for healthcare workers and – from Thursday – via GPs for certain groups.

But France has a vast network of pharmacies, easily accessible to most people with many staff qualified to give vaccines – pharmacies have already run a very successful seasonal flu vaccination programme.

The plan is for pharmacies to begin offering the vaccine, to priority groups only at first, in March which will hopefully provide a much-needed boost to the programme and make it easier to get appointments although this rollout does not have a firm start date.


Member comments

  1. Thanks for this informative and well-written article. I do hope the vaccination programme picks up in France. I’m 64 and according to “CovidTracker” I will be vaccinated in March NEXT YEAR at the earliest, at the current rate. Totally unacceptable and shameful.
    I was also deeply shocked, by the way, by Castex’s press conference on Thursday where he appeared to be satisfied with the vaccination programme, showing highly biased statistics in support of this. Why can’t he just tell the truth, ie that the programme is not going well but that the government is working to fix it (at least I hope they are)? Like anyone else, I do not like being taken for an idiot!

  2. Daniela, do not spread such falsehoods. People who question the vaccination are rightly called crazy and should be called idiots. Do you also question other vaccines? Flu? What is your suggestion? Let it go on for months and years, with the virus mutating, and let hundreds of thousands die till we get to collective immunity? The vaccine protects only against serious illness and death, and that is for a vast majority. Not anything else. Even if a small minority will get seriously ill after getting vaccinated that means there is an issue with their immunity system, not with vaccine. Is that an argument for you, or anyone else, not to get vaccinated? If so, then you are an idiot. There was a pandemic a hundred years ago, they had no vaccine, some 50 million people died over three years, and they can’t even exactly say how many. That’s like the whole of France. We will be able to drop that masks and stop social distancing when majorities of nations get to collective immunity, the virus doesn’t kill in hundreds everyday. Not when you and a few other get vaccinated. Are you able to understand that? If not, then you definitely are an idiot.

    1. So people that question a vaccine that has been hyped by Governments and the press but has not been properly tested are accordingly to you crazy. Ever thought it might be because they don’t want a vaccine that is not a cure but is being pitched as it is injected into their bodies.

      1. How do you know and on what basis do you say that it has not been properly tested? What is your knowledge and competence to say that? The vaccines have been admitted by major health institutions in Europe, in the US and on other continents. Do you have any competence to question that? A vaccine against a disease is not cure to the disease.

          1. Look, this is not children’s play, this is a serious topic. Anti-vaxers are a serious problem. If you have nothing clever to say, very clearly, then just shut up.

  3. Here are 12 important questions and answers before considering getting vaccinated:

    ●”If I get vaccinated can I stop wearing a mask(s)?”
    Government: “NO”
    ●”If I get vaccinated will the restaurants, bars, schools, fitness clubs, hair salons, etc. reopen and will people be able to get back to work like normal?
    Government: “NO”
    ●”If I get vaccinated will I be resistant to Covid?”
    Government: “Maybe. We don’t know exactly, but probably not.”
    ●”If I get vaccinated, at least I won’t be contagious to others – right?”
    Government: “NO. the vaccine doesn’t stop transmission.”
    ●”If I get vaccinated, how long will the vaccine last?”
    Government: “No one knows. All Covid “vaccines” are still in the experimental stage.”
    ● “If I get vaccinated, can I stop social distancing?”
    Government: “NO”
    ● “If my parents, grandparents and myself all get vaccinated can we hug each other again?”
    Government: “NO”
    ● “So what’s the benefit of getting vaccinated?”
    Government: “Hoping that the virus won’t kill you.”
    ●”Are you sure the vaccine won’t injure or kill me?”
    Government: “NO”
    ●”If statistically the virus won’t kill me (99.7% survival rate), why should I get vaccinated?”
    Government: “To protect others.”
    ●”So if I get vaccinated, I can protect 100% of people I come in contact with?”
    Government: “NO”
    ● “If I experience a severe adverse reaction, long term effects (still unknown) or die from the vaccine will I (or my family) be compensated from the vaccine manufacture or the Government?”
    Government: “NO – the government and vaccine manufactures have 100% zero liability regarding this experimental drug”
    So to summarize, the Covid19 “vaccine”…
    Does not provide immunity
    Does not eliminate the virus
    Does not prevent death
    Does not guarantee you won’t get it
    Does not stop you from passing it on to others
    Does not eliminate the need for travel bans
    Does not eliminate the need for business closures
    Does not eliminate the need for lockdowns
    Does not eliminate the need for masking

    If after reading this you still decide to get the “vaccine”…GOOD LUCK & DON’T SAY YOU WEREN’T WARNED.
    And people who question this lunacy are called “crazy”.

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