File: The race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine continues. Hendrik Schmidt / POOL / AFP
PARIS - France promised on Tuesday to speed up COVID vaccinations, but failed to silence critics who accused the government of "amateurism" over the slow start to its inoculation campaign.
Health Minister Olivier Veran, under intense pressure for lagging behind EU neighbours in dispensing vaccinations, said his government would soon catch up with the likes of Germany.
He said more than 2,000 people in total had been vaccinated by Monday -- compared with roughly 264,000 in Germany by the same day -- and that the "cruising speed of vaccinations will catch up with our neighbours in the coming days".
The German vaccination total had risen to more than 316,000 by Tuesday.
The French government has been playing catch-up with some of its neighbours since the start of an EU-wide vaccination drive on 27 December.
"Why don't we just vaccinate, like the Israelis, the British and Germans," asked a group of doctors in an opinion piece in Le Parisien newspaper, calling for all willing health workers and people over 65 to be inoculated immediately.
A satirical cartoon in Le Monde newspaper on Tuesday showed a masked President Emmanuel Macron sitting atop a snail and holding the reins.
The French leader met officials including Prime Minister Jean Castex on Monday to discuss the logjam.
"By Thursday we will increase numbers in a major way," Veran told RTL radio, saying that "we will be on an exponential curve".
France would now "amplify, accelerate and simplify" its vaccination strategy, he said.
Veran said vaccinations for over-75s who are not in care homes would be authorised by the end of January, covering five million people.
- 'Tell us the truth' -
He said the campaign would also be widened to include firefighters and home helpers over 50.
France was currently taking delivery of 500,000 doses of a vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech per week, Veran said.
Once it is approved for the EU, 500,000 doses of a vaccine created by Moderna would be added every month, he said.
But opposition politicians were far from satisfied with Xavier Bertrand, president of the northern Hauts-de-France region, saying: "I want the government to tell us the truth: Exactly how many doses have been ordered by France?"
Bertrand, a former health minister, said he had "the unpleasant impression that there is a lack of vaccines".
Manon Aubry, a European Parliament deputy for the left-wing France Unbowed, said this year had begun just as the last one had ended, "with a lack of preparation, amateurism and, after the fiasco concerning masks and testing, we now have the fiasco of the vaccines".
Like several local politicians, Romain Pasquier from France's national scientific research centre (CNRS) blamed the slow rollout on the country's centralised political system.
"I thought the health minister might have learnt something from the painful experience last spring when the first lockdown was managed in an extremely centralised way, but I was wrong," he said.
Two lawmakers from the opposition LR party called on the National Assembly to summon the health minister for an update.
The Senate said meanwhile that Veran would appear before its social affairs committee next week to outline "the corrective measures" planned by the government.
- 'Sterile arguments' -
Castex hit back at the government's critics, saying "sterile arguments have never saved a single life" as he promised more information at a news conference on Thursday.
Just 40 percent of French want to take the vaccine compared with 77 percent in Britain, according to an opinion poll last week by Ipsos Global Advisor and the World Economic Forum.
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 totalled 65,415, they said, after 380 new deaths were recorded.
Veran said France had detected "about 10 suspected or confirmed cases" of a new variant virus strain that emerged in England.