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France tries weekend surge to improve vaccination record

In southwest Paris, mayor Philippe Goujon answered the government's call for a "national mobilisation" to accelerate vaccinations this weekend -- but he wonders why the surge has taken so long.

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre in the HIA Begin military hospital, in Saint-Mande, southeast of Paris, on March 7, 2021. Bertrand Guay / POOL / AFP
In the town hall of the wealthy 15th district of the capital, hard-pressed doctors and municipal staff opened the doors of their innoculation centre on Saturday and Sunday.

"There's a gigantic difference," Goujon told AFP. "For a start we're open at the weekend, and secondly we've gone from about a hundred vaccinations a day to 1,200."

He dismisses any suggestion that the previous Monday-Friday operation was because of the sacred status of the weekend in France, where shops were long banned from opening on Sundays, or difficulties in finding volunteers.

"We didn't have enough doses. It's only an issue of doses," he said as elderly people lined up outside ready to head into one of 10 different booths. "At the beginning we thought we'd open every day including Saturday and Sunday." 

By the end of the weekend, staff here will have inoculated well over 2,000 people, around three times the number seen in a usual week.

National vaccination drive

It's a similar picture across France where vaccinations centres have been asked to open on Saturday and Sunday in a bid to accelerate the roll-out, with the government facing criticism at home and mockery abroad for the sluggish progress.

"We are calling for a national mobilisation," Prime Minister Jean Castex told reporters last Thursday. "Mayors, nurses, hospitals, everyone needs to be on deck, including the weekend."

On Saturday, around 220,000 injections were administered country-wide, compared with 80,000-85,000 on a normal Saturday, and another 100,000 jabs are expected on Sunday.

Mayor Goujon, who is from the opposition right-wing Republicans party, applauds the sense of urgency, but says it has come too late -- and at a cost of lives and new infections.

"I heard the prime minister call for a national mobilisation. Why didn't he do this a month and half or two months ago? We should have had this sort of organisation in place in mid-January," he said.

Fresh capacity

Ten weeks since the first jab in France, the government is looking to adopt measures put in place by countries with the best vaccination track record, such as Britain and Israel.

There is talk of creating "vaccinodromes" with capacity to handle thousands of people per day.

The country's pharmacy workers are finally to be authorised to administer all three authorised jabs, while the fire service and the army are to be drafted in greater numbers to get more shots in arms.

Vaccination efforts have taken on new urgency because of an uptick in infections, which has led to full weekend lockdowns for more than two million people in addition to a nationwide 6:00 pm curfew.

So far France has administered around 5.5 million doses of the three vaccines authorised for use -- Pfizer/BioNtech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca/Oxford University -- according to government figures.

This compares with roughly 23 million doses in neighbouring Britain.

At the town hall in Paris, Odile Morisseau joked that France perhaps needed help from across the channel as she left the vaccination centre, a smile on her face.

She'd be keeping tabs on progress from friends in the UK, she said.

"Maybe we need to bring in Boris Johnson?" joked the 71-year-old, referring to the British prime minister. "I know he's made mistakes, but they seem to be doing a good job with vaccinations."

Penury and surplus

The problem faced by France is a lack of doses in some areas and a surplus in others.

The centralised purchase agreements signed by the European Union for doses from Pfizer and Moderna have come under scrutiny, with claims that the EU fell behind in the queue compared with Britain, Israel or the United States.

"All our elected officials want more vaccines. I want more vaccines too!" Health Minister Olivier Veran told reporters on Sunday while noting the "exceptional efforts" over the weekend.

But the roll-out of the British-made AstraZeneca/Oxford jab, the only approved vaccination that can be stored in a regular refrigerator, has also been a fiasco.

After an outcry about late deliveries, the health ministry reported last week that only about a quarter of doses had been used, with medical and care-home staff shunning the jab because of fears about its side effects and efficacy.

Other complaints include a time-consuming process to give consent for a vaccination, as well as reliance on an online appointment system that has baffled many elderly people.

"This was all great, perfect," said Eveline Frantz, a retired German teacher, as she left the townhall on Sunday with her freshly jabbed father. "But the general policy has been a complete mess."

Topics: Philippe Goujon , France , Vaccine , COVID-19 , Odile Morisseau
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