Several other EU countries, including Spain and Belgium, threaten to overtake Britain in terms of jabs per capita in the coming days.
The UK vaccination campaign – rightly the pride of the nation in the spring – slowed at a frantic pace last month. France now carries out the first vaccination on average 330,000 people per day; the United Kingdom 44,000. France completes the vaccination of 400,000 people per day; the United Kingdom 170,000.
Some say it doesn’t matter. Britain has already achieved an extremely high level of first vaccination – 88% of the adult population, around 70% of the general population. It was always going to be difficult to reach the last millions of vax-resistant, vax-timid and vax-lazy. Covid infections are, in any case, declining rapidly. Senior ministers are privately boasting that Britain has already obtained “collective immunity”. Perhaps. Maybe not.
The level of coverage needed to achieve herd immunity as more aggressive forms of Covid emerge is disputed by epidemiologists. In any case, full vaccinations currently cover only 71% of the UK adult population. The second jabs have been stuck on a plateau of about 170,000 a day for weeks. Why so slow when France manages more than double?
After being the world leader in anti-Covid vaccination earlier this year, the government risks – like the hare in Aesop’s fable – of taking a nap in the home stretch of the race.
Such complacency does not exist in other European countries, in particular in France. They have introduced or are considering legislation to, in effect, constrain the timid, reluctant and resistant vax.
An existing French health subscription will be extended from Monday, August 9. In the future, no jabs, no fun. Only those who are double-bitten, recently tested or recovered from Covid will have access to bars, restaurants or long-distance travel. Health workers must be fully immunized by mid-September or face suspension or dismissal.
Much has been written in the UK press about the street protests this policy has generated (with more protests expected this Saturday). Less has been written about the extraordinary impact of President Emmanuel Macron’s decision – and that was largely his decision – on the vax-shy.
Since Macron announced the new policy on July 12, 4.7 million French people have been affected first – 320,000 per day, double the previous rate. In recent days (excluding weekends), France has first vaccinated more than 400,000 people per day. These figures put into context the estimated 160,000 people who demonstrated across the country last Saturday.
The French vaccination program, after a slow start, had a strong period from April to June. He then slowed down when he reached the layers of young vax snobbers or old vax resistant (inset). This is not surprising, given that an Ipsos Mori survey of 15 countries in December found France to be the most hesitant to vaccinate, with just 40% intending to receive the vaccine.
Yet, rather than accepting this as an inescapable fact, Macron pulled out a big stick. He was attacked by some in France as a freedom killer for doing so. An article in the Spectator accuses him of “infantilizing” the French. But there is another way of looking at it. With the Delta variant threatening a fourth wave of Covid, Macron made the courageous decision to push the vaccination faster and further.
As of Tuesday evening, more than 41 million French people had been vaccinated for the first time. The figure in the UK (with the same population of around 67 million) is 46.6 million.
Should Boris Johnson make a Macron and introduce a health pass in England? Yes. But the chances of it doing so are zero. To do so would be to admit that the once-so-praised UK vaccine rollout was dozing down the home stretch.
John Lichfield is a Paris-based journalist