France’s Slow Vaccine Start Sparks Early 2021 Crisis for Macron
(Bloomberg) -- France’s coronavirus vaccinations have started far slower than in other countries, a situation President Emmanuel Macron may struggle to fix because of a vaccine-skeptical population.
Progress is being hit by administrative red tape, a lack of enough nursing staff over the year-end holidays and the fact that only the elderly in nursing homes were due to be targeted in the first stage. The government is also proving deliberately cautious, allowing a consent period between the time people sign up for the vaccine and actually receiving the shot.
In a country where the comparison with neighboring Germany is a national obsession, the figures are particularly embarrassing for Macron: France has vaccinated only 516 people, compared with almost 239,000 in Germany as of Sunday.
With opposition politicians crying “national scandal” and “fiasco,” and doctors calling for faster rollout of the Covid shot, the government has said it will speed up the effort. The president will meet with both the Prime Minister Jean Castex and Health Minister Olivier Veran later on Monday.
For Macron, facing elections in 2022, one of the big problems is a wary public. According to an Odoxa poll on Monday, 58% of French don’t want to get the Covid vaccine. In part to assuage their concerns, Veran had defended the country taking its time, before the president said in a New Year’s address that there should be no unnecessary delays.
“This whole crisis is going to be tragically politically costly for Macron,” said Bruno Jeanbart, vice-chairman of political pollster OpinionWay. “The French Presidency seems completely and wrongly focused on anti-vaccine movements and has an inaccurate read of the polls on the matter, probably a scar from the Yellow Vest grassroots episode.”
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France has now widened the scope of vaccination beyond nursing-home residents. At the weekend, medical staff older than 50 who had initially been targeted for vaccination in a later stage began to receive the shot. But the process is still subject to a compulsory medical consultation and agreement before the dose can be given.
“The most important thing is the administrative burden that we have in France, with this consent that each patient must give,” Stephane Paul, an immunologist who sits on the government vaccine advisory committee, said on BFM TV. “We made the choice to go step by step to reassure the population, because we indeed have a French population which is quite hesitant about vaccination.”
The strategy of a vaccination campaign in stages isn’t changed, in spite of the initial sluggishness, a Presidency spokeswoman said on Monday.
Some glitches can be smoothed out, such as reducing the consideration period, or any administrative slowness, the spokeswoman said. But the careful rollout remains unchanged, in spite of the threat of a potential epidemic rebound after the year-end festivities or the possible arrival of the coronavirus variant from the U.K., she said.
With nursing homes representing 1% of the French population, and a third of the deaths linked to Covid, they should be the priority, said Dominique Le Guludec, who heads the French National Authority for Health.
“If we vaccinate a lot but not the right people, we’re going to take months to reduce the hospitalizations and deaths,” Le Guludec said on BFM TV. “We have to vaccinate quickly those who need it most.”
By the end of January, one million French should be vaccinated, rising to 15 to 20 million by end April, as planned, the Presidency spokeswoman said.
For Jeanbart, Macron is alienating those who could be his potential supporters in 2022 and who believe vaccination should be as fast as possible to help the economy back on its feet. This potential negative impact won’t be immediately seen in polls, as the crisis acts as a lid on frustrations.
Yet, “as soon as the crisis is over, hopefully this year and any case before the presidential vote in spring 2022, tensions will erupt and Macron could well fall victim of this,” he said.
Jean Garrigues, a professor of history at Orleans University, said the impact on Macron may not last because of the “loyalty” of his core supporters. But he won’t escape all the flack.
“As everything is centralized in France, Macron is indeed responsible for this all,” he said.
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