French President Emmanuel Macron vowed Thursday to avoid "unjustifiable delays" in efforts to immunise citizens against Covid-19 following criticism over the slow pace of the inoculation campaign.
But in his New Year's address to the nation Macron also struck a defensive note, saying he would let "no-one play with the safety" of the vaccination drive.
With France's vaccination programme so far paling in comparison to many other EU countries, Macron -- who has himself just recovered from Covid-19 -- is under pressure to step up the pace.
Since Sunday, fewer than 200 people have been given the Pfizer-BioNTech jab in France, compared to 78,000 in Germany.
The government had defended the pace, saying that officials were taking time to win over a vaccine-sceptical nation by giving patients time to consider their choices.
But shortly before Macron's speech, Health Minister Olivier Veran announced plans to expand the campaign which so far has solely targeted care-home residents and health workers aged over 65.
Veran said that from Monday health workers aged over 50 could also get the jab -- much sooner than initially planned.
The race to immunise the population gained increased urgency following the announcement Thursday that a South African variant of coronavirus, feared to be more contagious, had been detected in France.
The news came less than a week after France confirmed it had also recorded its first case of a new strain blamed for a spike of infections in Britain.
The pandemic has claimed 64,632 lives in France, where bars, restaurants and cultural and sporting venues remain closed two weeks after the end of a second nationwide lockdown.
"This year 2020 has been difficult," Macron, who was forced by the virus to put his reform drive on the back burner, acknowledged.
"But together we emerge more united," he said.