France on Tuesday pledged to catch up with its neighbours on anti-Covid vaccinations “within days”.
Facing widespread recrimination for only vaccinating 512 people in the first week, health minister Olivier Véran said more than 2,000 people had been vaccinated on Monday and that the "cruising speed of vaccinations will catch up with our neighbours in the coming days”.
Germany has vaccinated 264,000 people since the start of an EU-wide vaccination drive on December 27 and the UK has administered more than a million doses. Opposition politicians have slammed the slow progress as a “state scandal”, calling the sluggish start a national disgrace.
Under pressure to take personal responsibility, President Emmanuel Macron held a crisis meeting on the bottleneck with his prime minister and other officials at the Elysée on Monday evening.
Hours later, Mr Véran said France would now "amplify, accelerate and simplify" its vaccination strategy. “By Thursday we will increase numbers in a major way. We will be on an exponential curve,” he told RTL.
Vaccinations for people over 75 years of age who are not in care homes would be authorised by the end of January, covering five million people, he said, adding that the campaign would also be widened to include firefighters and home helpers over 50. Anyone who wished to be vaccinated would “in the coming days” be able to register for a jab online, he added.
Rules requiring only a doctor or a nurse under the direct supervision of a doctor to inject the vaccine would be eased. A doctor would be allowed to supervise multiple nurses at any one time in a vaccination centre, said Mr Véran.
Similarly, rules requiring that any person wanting a Covid vaccine must hold a consultation with a doctor first would also be made simpler.
France was on course to receive 500,000 doses of a vaccine developed by Pfizer per week, Mr Veran said. Once approved for use within the EU, 500,000 doses of a vaccine by Moderna would be added every month.
However, opposition politicians questioned his assertions and claimed the woefully slow start to France's campaign masked a dearth of doses.
Xavier Bertrand, president of the northern Hauts-de-France region, said: "I want the government to tell us the truth: Exactly how many doses have been ordered by France?"
Mr Bertrand said he had "the unpleasant impression that there is a lack of vaccines", while the Socialist deputy mayor of Paris, Emmanuel Gregoire, asked: "Where are the doses now?"
Manon Aubry, a European Parliament deputy for the left-wing France Unbowed, said that "2021 starts just like 2020 ended, with a lack of preparation, amateurism and, after the fiasco concerning masks and testing, we now have the fiasco of the vaccines".
Two MPs from the opposition LR party meanwhile called on the National Assembly to summon the health minister for an update.
Jean Castex, the prime minister, dismissed suggestions of a vaccine shortage saying this was no time for “sterile arguments”.
French health authorities face an uphill struggle convinced the wider population of the merits of vaccination despite the national death toll, now above 65,000.
Just 40 per cent of the French public want to take the vaccine compared with 77 percent in Britain, according to an opinion poll last week by Ipsos Global Advisor in partnership with the World Economic Forum.
The country has a curfew system in place but no nationwide lockdown and all schools reopened on Monday.
The vaccination controversy came amid fears France could be hit by a wave of the new, more contagious variant virus strain that emerged in England.
Mr Veran confirmed authorities had detected "about a dozen suspected or confirmed cases" and were watching for any outbreaks "like hawks”.
A first case was detected in Tours, in the Loire, after a French citizen returning from the UK tested positive. Other cases have been detected in Corsica and Paris while the biggest cluster was among nine rugby players and staff from Bayonne who contracted the virus after playing Leicester at home on December 19. They self-isolated and have since all tested negative.
French health authorities on Monday reported 4,022 new coronavirus cases confirmed in the previous 24 hours, taking the total to 2.66 million.
French deaths from Covid-19 now total 65,415.