The French government on Monday faced growing pressure to accelerate its Covid-19 vaccination drive, with President Emmanuel Macron reportedly also furious over the slow pace of progress.
Only a few hundred people have received the shot so far in France, compared with more than 200,000 in Germany and about one million in Britain.
“What we have seen is a government scandal,” Jean Rottner, the head of France’s Grand Est eastern region, which has seen a particularly sharp rise in infections, told France 2 television.
“Things need to accelerate,” said Rottner, a member of the right-wing Republicans (LR) opposition party. “The French need clarity and firm messages from a government that knows where it is going. It is not giving this impression.”
Macron in his New Year address to the nation had already pledged there would be no “unjustifiable delays” in the rollout of the vaccination, but the Journal du Dimanche newspaper reported Sunday that he has been scathing in private about the speed of progress.
A pace at the level of “a family stroll” was not “worthy of the moment nor of the French,” the newspaper, seen as close to the Elysee Palace, quoted Macron as saying.
“I am at war in the morning, noon, evening and night,” the president, who recently himself recovered from a Covid-19 infection, said according to the report. “I expect the same commitment from all. This won’t do. It must change quickly and firmly.”
The deputy president of the far-right National Rally (RN), Jordan Bardella, said that France had become the “laughing stock of the world.”
“We vaccinated in a week the same number that the Germans vaccinated in 30 minutes. It’s shameful,” he told RTL television.
According to the French health ministry, only 516 people had received the vaccination by January 1.
The government had begun the vaccination drive by targeting residents of care homes, a laborious process given that consent is required from each patient.
However, in an apparent change of tack in the face of the pressure, Health Minister Olivier Veran announced that health workers aged over 50 could be vaccinated starting Monday.
Elisabeth Bouvet, head of the technical committee on vaccines for the French health authority, said the strategy would remain the same but “probably must accelerate.”
“We must not exaggerate: we started vaccinating just a week ago, we cannot call this a disaster,” she told France Inter radio.
The EU so far has approved only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, while a vaccine developed by France’s Sanofi and Britain’s GSK is only going to be ready later in the year due to delays.
But the government has vehemently denied it is holding out for a homegrown French vaccine to become available.