France will start offering Covid-19 vaccinations to anyone over the age of 70 on Saturday, President Emmanuel Macron announced Tuesday, as he sought to breathe more urgency into his country's vaccination campaign.
“We’re going to change pace from April,” Macron said during a visit to an inoculation centre in the northern town of Valenciennes, adding that there should be “no weekends or days off when it comes to vaccinations”.
The president later said he hoped there would be targeted campaigns for certain professions, such as teachers, by April or May and that in a race against time public holidays should be no barrier to delivering injections.
Previously, the government had slated opening up Covid-19 vaccine slots for the over-70s in mid-April. Vaccinations are currently available for those over 75 and anyone over 50 with a serious pre-existing condition.
France is tackling a third wave of infections but is lagging behind many Western countries in the number of people vaccinated.
It has rolled out some 8.8 million doses, compared with more than 30 million in Britain and nearly 11 million in Germany.
While the inoculation drive has sped up in recent weeks, it has failed to keep step with a spike in new cases. The number of new infections is averaging around 30,000 a day, up around a third from the previous week.
Hospitals could face an "unprecedented shock" within three weeks as infections explode, said the head of France's hospital federation as he urged tougher curbs on social interaction if the spread did not slow soon.
With hospitals in some regions already overwhelmed, the government has placed a third of the population under partial lockdown and announced plans to set up 35 mass vaccination centres.
Until now, France has been relying on community halls, hospitals, doctor's surgeries and pharmacies while the US, Britain and several other countries have requisitioned larger spaces, such as stadiums.
The government has complained that delays and shortfalls in vaccine deliveries – particularly supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine – have hampered its fight against the pandemic.
European governments are furious that the Anglo-Swedish firm has been able to fully honour its UK contract while falling short on its supplies to the EU.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen has threatened to halt EU exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine if the bloc does not receive its promised deliveries first.
On Tuesday, Macron vowed to continue applying "very strong pressure" on the company to ensure that it respected its agreement with the EU.
"We're fighting to get hold of doses," he said.
France's Europe Minister Clément Beaune insisted on the need for "reciprocity" with the UK, speaking to French radio.
"We deliver if we receive deliveries. If we are not supplied by others we will not deliver the doses. It's simple," he said, adding that the EU leaders would discuss the issue at a summit on Thursday.
France was among a host of EU countries to temporarily suspend use of the AstraZeneca vaccine last week due to fears over blood clots, but the jab was declared "safe and effective" by European regulators.
The handling of the health crisis has major consequences for 43-year-old Macron, just over 12 months from presidential elections, in which he is expected to seek a second mandate.
With polls showing growing lockdown fatigue, he had for weeks tried to avoid ordering the French back indoors for a third time.
The month-long partial lockdown applies to Paris and several other regions in the north and southeast, but some experts believe new tougher measures will be needed.
Non-essential businesses in the affected regions were forced to close, but schools, hairdressers and book shops remain open, while there are no restrictions on leaving home up to a distance of 10 kilometres (6 miles).
Travel is banned between high-infection zones and the rest of the country.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)