France is to speed up its Covid-19 vaccination programme after the government was criticised for being overly cautious to ease the fears of vaccine sceptics.
The health minister, Olivier Véran, announced on Thursday evening that the vaccine would be made available to health workers over the age of 50 from Monday.
Nursing and medical staff had not been expected to get the vaccination until the end February according to the government’s original timetable.
The announcement came after ministers and officials were accused of pandering to anti-vaxxers in rolling out the vaccine.
Five days after launching its vaccine programme, the last figures available suggest just 332 people in France have been inoculated. Germany reported having given about 130,000 people the Covid-19 vaccine in the same period, and Italy 8,300. Spain said it was on track to have administered 1.3m doses by Thursday evening.
French officials had admitted they were taking a “marathon not sprint” approach to vaccination after running into strong public opposition. A Europe-wide poll by Ipsos showed that only 40% of French people questioned said they were willing to have a Covid-19 jab. France insists those receiving the vaccine give written consent after being fully informed of possible side-effects and time to consider whether they want it.
Opposition politicians and doctors have criticised this approach.
In his new year address, Emmanuel Macron said he would not allow an “unjustified delay” in the inoculation of the population to happen because of “bad reasons”. The president called on people to trust their doctors and scientists.
Dr Djillali Annane, the head of the emergency service at the Raymond-Pointcaré de Garches hospital in the Hauts-de-Seine, said he and colleagues who had urged the government to speed up the inoculation programme had been “partially heard”.
“We can see absolutely no justification for limiting the access to the vaccine to health professionals over the age of 50. Whatever their age, their exposure to risk is very high,” he said. “The vaccine should be made easily and rapidly available for all healthy professionals whatever their age.”
Véran on Thursday evening called on the French to be patient. “Some of you have questioned the rhythm of the Covid-19 vaccination in France, a few days after it began in Europe,” Véran tweeted.
“Some countries have already vaccinated a lot; others, like Belgium and the Netherlands, haven’t started. Be reassured. The vaccine campaign will soon pick up speed. The vaccine is a historic opportunity to end this epidemic and return to normal life and we will not miss it.”
He insisted the low number of inoculations was because the health authorities had chosen to prioritise “vulnerable people in care homes … where serious cases most often are”.
“Also because the CCNE [national ethics consultative committee] asks that every person vaccinated has given their informed consent following a medical visit. It’s a test of trust for our citizens. This stage is essential and we will respect it. The vaccination can then be given after consent or a few days later.”
Véran said the vaccine would be offered to all elderly people “in a few weeks”. “Then we will be at the same level as other countries,” he tweeted.
“We know how to organise mass vaccinations.”