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French government heavily criticised over slow COVID-19 vaccination rollout

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Alain a French 92-year-old man receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.
Alain a French 92-year-old man receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.   -   Copyright  Philippe Desmazes/Pool via AP
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France has been heavily criticised for its slow approach to COVID-19 vaccinations, inoculating just 516 people in the first week since the vaccine was delivered.

In the same amount of time, Germany vaccinated more than 200,000 people and Italy inoculated more than 100,000 citizens.

One reason for the delay, experts have said, is that France took a more cautious strategy to vaccinations, requiring a pre-vaccination visit and the express consent of the person being vaccinated.

The pre-vaccination visit has to happen five days before the vaccine is delivered, the health ministry said in a 45-page guide on the vaccine rollout in care homes.

Health minister Olivier Véran said this process of "informed consent" was a "token of confidence" for French people.

But the critics in the country are lining up, with French Greens party MEP Yannick Jadot calling the vaccination rollout a "fiasco" and right-wing European parliamentarian Geoffroy Didier saying he was "ashamed" of France.

Eric Ciotti and Damien Abad, both members of Parliament from the right-wing Republicans, requested a meeting with the health minister to discuss the slow vaccinations, sending a letter on Wednesday that stated: "France cannot be one of the last countries to vaccinate."

On Monday, amid rising criticism, President Emmanuel Macron planned to hold a meeting to discuss the strategy, the Elysée said in a statement provided to AFP.

The vaccination strategy has already been slightly adjusted.

France's High Authority of Health had recommended that vulnerable individuals living in care homes or other collective accommodation be vaccinated first but now the country will allow health workers over 50 to have access to vaccines as well.

"I asked hospitals to immediately open vaccination to health professionals [over] 50 years old," Véran tweeted on Saturday, in what many saw as an effort to move along the effort.

He pointed out however that some countries, including the Netherlands, have not yet started their vaccination campaigns.

"Terrorised that there would be fierce opposition, the government seems to be recoiling, apologising for having to vaccinate," Axel Kahn, head of the National League Against Cancer, told France Inter radio on Monday.

Kahn said that the country needed to simplify the process and not discourage people from being vaccinated.

Some have suggested the country has been too cautious due to unfavourable public support for vaccines.

France consistently has one of the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy in the world, with some studies suggesting that just 59% would get a COVID-19 vaccine if it was available. The government has said they want to gain the public's trust.

"The vaccine is an extraordinary opportunity, you should not be afraid of getting vaccinated, nor of not having access to it. Gradually, everyone can be protected, in order of priority, as the vaccines are delivered to us," Véran said.

The rollout comes as infections rise in France after the holidays and the entire country remains under a strict curfew.

Many are also worried that the UK and South African coronavirus variants, which officials say are more transmissible, could contribute to rising infections.

Kahn wrote on Twitter that he was calling for a change to France's vaccine strategy because it was "established" with the idea that there would be 5,000 infections per day and that it is "no longer adapted to the current reality and to the threats of [new COVID-19] variants."

"France will catch up"

"I think it's a matter of time. France will catch up, there's no question. It can be bureaucracy, all kinds of reasons why these things take a bit longer," said Luke O'Neill, professor of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin.

Speaking to Euronews, he cited the UK, Germany, Denmark and Croatia as faring better than their European peers in their vaccine rollouts.

"Two weeks from now, I suspect they'll all catch up with each other. There will be mass vaccination all over Europe, that has to be the goal," O'Neill said.

Watch highlights of the interview in the video player above.

EU defends inoculation strategy

The European Commission has also defended its coronavirus vaccination strategy, amid growing criticism in member states about the slow rollout of COVID-19 shots across the region.

Some EU members have been quick to blame the bloc's executive arm for a perceived failure of delivering the right amount of doses.

In Finland, health authorities are reportedly unhappy that the country only received around 40,000 doses in December, instead of the 300,000 that were expected,

Facing a barrage of questions on vaccines during a news conference on Monday, EU Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said the main problem with the deployment of vaccination programs "is an issue of the production capacity... an issue that everybody is facing."

As part of its strategy, the EU has sealed six vaccine contracts with Moderna, AstraZeneca, Sanofi-GSK, Janssen Pharmaceutica NV, Pfizer-BioNTech and CureVac.

But only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved for use so far in the 27-nation bloc with 450 million inhabitants.

The EU’s health regulator is expected to decide on Wednesday whether to recommend authorising the Moderna vaccine.

Mamer also clarified the role of the commission in securing contracts with potential drug makers.

He said the commission did not directly buy doses of vaccines but "acted as an investor" to provide funding to pharmaceutical companies developing vaccines.

The goal was to speed up production capacities and research, with all EU nations free to decide how many doses they would buy from the vaccine producers of their choice.