Jab or work? French vaccine rules give some health workers a tough choice


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Guylain Richard is waiting to know if she is allergic to the Covid-19 vaccine. Unlike most of the others who take these tests, she desperately hopes that she will be.

The social worker in Le Havre, in northern France, is one of 2.7 million French health and social workers who have been sentenced to receive a jab or be suspended from their jobs without pay. Since a deadline passed on Sept. 15, some 3,000 have been suspended – and Richard, 56, could join them unless she can show a valid reason to avoid a vaccine she views with deep suspicion.

“It makes me sick, really sick, just thinking about having to take the vaccine,” said Richard, adding that many of his friends and colleagues have been automatically suspended. “They are depressed. They call me every day crying, ”she said. “It’s a human catastrophe.

When doctors, caregivers, firefighters and paramedics learned they would be removed from their posts if they refused to be vaccinated by mid-September, unions and some senior health officials feared the rules would fail. lead to an exodus of staff at a critical time. time for the country’s health service. A small but noisy minority of French citizens are suspicious of a vaccine developed so quickly and distributed by a government they distrust.

But the latest government data suggests the policy has worked, although it has caused some discontent.

People hold signs protesting new coronavirus safety measures, including a mandatory health pass © Sébastien Salom-Gomis / AFP via Getty Images

As of September 14, 89 percent of employees in public hospitals and nursing homes, and 95 percent of private healthcare professionals had received the jab. This compares to 50% of nursing home workers and 80% of private healthcare professionals when President Emmanuel Macron announced the requirement on July 14, according to data released by Public Health France.

Meanwhile, the proportion of people vaccinated in France has overtaken the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom, with 74% of the population having received at least one dose, according to data from the Financial Times.

“All people who work in contact with frail, elderly or sick people are now vaccinated, so the risk of contamination in hospitals and retirement homes has been reduced”, Minister of Health Olivier Véran told RTL radio on September 16.

But some unions and staff members remain outraged by what they see as authoritarian overreach by the French government.

“Do you think that with the healthcare system in its current state, we have the means to deal with thousands of fewer caregivers in our establishments? Sandrine Gérard, general secretary of the CGT union of workers in rest homes in Le Havre, told the FT. “At the moment, we are suspending the nursing staff who have given themselves body and soul [to the pandemic response] for 18 months. We tell them that because they are not vaccinated, they will no longer be paid.

Graph showing vaccination doses administered in the United Kingdom, France, Israel and the United States (first cumulative doses administered per 100 inhabitants)

The government has nevertheless taken a hard line against many who refuse, believing that without penalty, unvaccinated workers will remain in the system.

Italy, which was the first country in Europe to make vaccination against Covid-19 compulsory for healthcare professionals, is an example, choosing so far not to penalize most of those who flout the law. rule.

According to Anna Odone, professor of public health at the University of Pavia, only 644 health workers have been suspended for non-vaccination, and estimates suggest that 80% of the unvaccinated are still working. In the Piedmont region, around 10% of healthcare workers – or 18,000 people – have not been vaccinated and are still working, she said. “If the law were stricter, we would have obtained better results in terms of vaccination. The principle is correct but the implementation is weak, ”she said.

In France, further layoffs are expected. But Synerpa, a union representing staff at private care homes, said it expected only 1 to 2 percent of the 300,000 to 350,000 employees it represents to be suspended altogether.

Regional variations in immunization rates have also led some to question how well the government can enforce the law in some areas. In some French overseas territories, including the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, the vaccination rate in some hospitals and retirement homes has been estimated at around 30%.

The director general of the main CHU of Guadeloupe, where 74% of the non-medical staff refused to be vaccinated, told AFP that he “cannot apply the law” because it would seriously impact the services of the hospital .

“I take it upon myself to run this hospital despite the law,” he said.

In mainland France, declared vaccination rates also appear to be significantly lower among ambulance and firefighters, according to calculations by representatives of these sectors. Most are volunteers.

The government “may have to put water in its wine” and be “less rigid” as regards the application of the legislation in certain regions and certain sectors, estimated Philippe Durand, lawyer in labor law at the firm of lawyers August Debouzy in Paris.

In Le Havre, Richard said many of his colleagues accepted the vaccine but with heavy hearts.

A caregiver “can’t even look me in the eye” because he is so ashamed, she said. “It went against all of his values ​​but he gave in because he couldn’t afford to lose his salary.”


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