Unanswered phones and long waits – the frustrations of getting a Covid vaccination in France

Unanswered phones and long waits - the frustrations of getting a Covid vaccination in France
France's vaccine programme is not running smoothly everywhere. Photo: AFP
France's Covid vaccine programme is now up and running and slowly gathering pace - bur for those who are eligible for appointments the system has plenty of frustrations.

Criticised for its slow start, the French vaccine programme is now speeding up with more than 2 million people getting at least one dose of the vaccine – but there seem to be wide disparities between service levels in different areas of France.

 

At present there are four groups eligible for the vaccine – over 75s, people with severe medical conditions, healthcare workers and staff and residents of Ehpad nursing homes.

The next group to become eligible will be the 65-74 group, expected in February but with no firm date as yet.

However those people in the eligible groups have reported a very mixed experience in getting an appointment.

Over 75s can make an appointment directly with a vaccine centre, people under 75 but with severe medical conditions need a prescription from their doctor to get the vaccine and these are reserved for the most serious illnesses such as cancer patients and transplant patients – you can find the full list of eligible conditions here

Appointments can be made by phone, online or via the Doctolib app – click HERE for the full guide to making an appointment.

We asked readers of The Local to tell us about their experiences of using the system.

We received almost 100 responses to our questionnaire, mostly from people within the eligible groups.

Booking

Of those who responded, roughly half said that they had easily made an appointment – the other half are either still waiting or managed to get an appointment date only after repeated attempts.

Keith Mary, who lives on Île-de-Ré in Charente-Maritime, said: “Our centre was closed after only 2/3 days and no appointments are being offered due to an alleged shortage of the vaccine.”

Malcolm Bayes who lives in Maine-et-Loire simply said: “No-one answers the phone in our département.”

Janie McDonald said: “I have a list of all the vaccine centres in Hérault, where I live, and I check each day, but none of them are offering vaccine appointments.”

Philip Cullen, who lives in Dordogne, said: “I have tried booking three times every day with no success.”

Local vaccine centres have been asked to create waiting lists so that people don't need to call repeatedly, but of our respondents only two people had been offered a place on a waiting list.

Overall people in rural areas seemed to have more problems than those living in cities, but several people told us they had had great difficulty finding an appointment in Charente, Charente-Maritime, Dordogne and Alpes-Maritime – which are all areas that have large populations of elderly people.

Prime Minister Jean Castex said in his health briefing at the beginning of February that extra tranches of appointments would be opened up in the second half of February and again at the start of March.

Appointments

Of the people who managed to get an appointment, most people said things ran relatively smoothly.

Jim Romanos who lives in Morbihan in Brittany, said: “It was very smooth.

“Went to reception on time, went quickly and thoroughly through the list of questions with a practitioner, went straight to a nurse who registered my carte vitale, straight to the nurse who administered my jab.

“Probably 5 or 6 minutes for whole process. Then a 15 minute sit-down in case of adverse reaction, monitored by another nurse. All staff were friendly and professional. Whole atmosphere very calm.”

Rob Francis in Saint-Lô added: “It was very well organised and I even got a cup of coffee while I waited the 15 minutes afterwards.”

Bente Arnild, who lives in Mulhouse in Haut-Rhin, said: “My husband, 75 years old, tried for a whole week to get an appointment online, in vain – but then three new centres were opened in Haut Rhin.

“The centre was in a sports centre – there was a reception desk, waiting space, doctor check, jab, secretarial check, waiting area for 15 minutes after the jab, everything was very professionally arranged.”

Two themes emerged – some people in the under 75 group said they had difficulty in getting a prescription for the vaccine – you can check here if your health condition puts you into an eligible group.

The other was among people who are not yet registered within the French healthcare system so don't have a carte vitale, mostly people who are new arrivals.

This seemed to flummox staff at some vaccine centres, but the French health ministry has said that people without the card can be vaccinated, as this is a public health emergency.

Peter Bear, who lives in Allier, and his wife are still waiting for their cartes vitale, which caused some confusion at their local vaccine centre.

He said: “Against the bit on the form where it needed the Medical Reference Number, the lady wrote en cours. That’s when the trouble started and we went on and on in a circular argument – they couldn’t give the vaccine without the number. We would have a number shortly and could give it to them when we report for the second jab in four weeks’ time. They faffed around, made phone calls which seemed to be unanswered (it was near lunchtime), and eventually told us it was very complicated and could only be handled via the internet.

“We waited endlessly in a draughty and unsympathetic waiting room getting bored, angry, tired, chilly and hungry. But in the end, after over an hour, we won through, got our jabs, waited fifteen minutes to ensure no nasty reaction, and drove home, for a very late lunch, satisfyingly ‘Pfizered’ but rather hungry.”

Robert Jarvis, who lives in Haut-Vienne said: “I've been in France for three months and am not working, so no carte vitale yet. I took every piece of documentary evidence, including a letter from my doctor, proof of private health insurance and a printout of the email confirmation from my application for residency.

“The staff weren't sure how to proceed without a carte vitale and needed to make a couple of phone calls. The doctor's letter was read but it was the residency application email that seemed the most important. After that, it was a smooth process and I have a form signed and stamped to show I've had the first injection.”

Robert's idea of taking with him all documents pertaining to residency in France is a good one that we would recommend to others in the same situation.

Second dose

We also asked people people who had received their first injection whether they had an appointment for the second, and how big the gap between the two appointments was.

The overwhelming majority of people had a date for their second dose, and everyone said their appointment was between three and four weeks after the first, as French government guidelines state that it should be.

The only anomaly that emerged was that in most areas people were given a date for the second appointment after they had the first, but in some places the first and second appointments had to be booked together.

Unlike some countries which have delayed giving the second dose of the vaccine in order to give more people the first dose, France has elected to stick with the manufacturer's recommendation for 3-4 weeks between injections.

In terms of first dose given, France is trailing miles behind the UK – 2.1 injections to 13.5 million. However the UK, which is delaying second doses for up to 12 weeks, has now given 524,000 second doses of the vaccines, leaving France not far behind as it has given 442,000 second doses.

Thank you to everyone who filled in our survey, we could not include all responses but it has given us a very valuable snapshot of how the system is working – or not working – on the ground.


Member comments

  1. Yes, I tried every genre in Lot et Garonne and Gironde, but every one reports no availability of appointments for at least 28 days.

  2. M M Ariege Ask for help from a Gp who is part of the team vaccinating at a local centre. Your Mairie will know who they are. They can give you appointments on the phone.This brought a result after a month trying 3 times a day. Quel soulagement!

  3. Excellent service in Nyons, Drôme. My husband aged 73 but with cancer was called the day the centre opened by the staff there and had his first injection 2 days later, and he gets his second one on Friday. Our GP had contacted him in advance and asked if he would give his consent, which, of course, he did and she prepared and actually delivered his ordonnance to the house the same day he got the call. Super impressed

  4. Excellent service in Nyons, Drôme. My husband aged 73 but with cancer was called the day the centre opened by the staff there and had his first injection 2 days later, and he gets his second one on Friday. Our GP had contacted him in advance and asked if he would give his consent, which, of course, he did and she prepared and actually delivered his ordonnance to the house the same day he got the call. Super impressed

  5. Puzzled to receive a letter, headed “Ministere des Solidarites et de la Sante and “L’Assurance Maladie”, addressed to me,personally and inviting me to get vaccinated – but I’m only 74 (75 in late March) so don’t currently qualify?

  6. I’m in the 65+ category so not yet eligible but, out of interest, I looked at the local opportunities via the Sante.fr website for Dept 46. A couple of weeks ago, an online booking option was available for my two nearest centres. One stated 287 appointments had been made for the next 28 days and no more were available, so try again later. That would work out at roughly 10 vaccinations per day. This week, the online option has gone and the dropdown menu for the centres show that they plan to offer vaccinations only from 1000-1200hrs, Mon-Fri. I don’t know whether the problem is lack of vaccine or staff but unless they up their game, it does not bode well for the time when vaccinations are offered to the more numerous age groups.

  7. Very strange. See my first message of 12 Feb above. I had , like many, others been attempting to secure a first appointment at various vaccination sites within the 47 department. All had vague negative replies but proudly indicated how few had been vaccinated which I found very odd. The next day a friend called to say finally Doctorlib site was indicating liberal RDVs suddenly available ! And yes it was so and within a couple of minutes 2 appointments made for 6 March and 12 April.
    However, on returning to the sante.fr site since then it still shows no RDV available at the same Agen vax site !!!! How can that be ??

  8. Dept 84 Vaucluse. nothing, nada, ridiculously bad system on Doctolib. Everyday we check 6 different places within 60km of us. and everyday it’s the same message that there’s no places available, no vaccines. Also checked Avignon and Orange and sud luberon — the vaccine cupboards are empty.

  9. meanwhile, in the UK , I was offered the vaccine twice in one day. One from the vaccine hub where I was volunteering but I had already received an unsolicited phone-call from my GP surgery and was booked in for the next day at a precise time. I went to the local surgery being used ( not mine) , queued up for a few minutes in the freezing cold ( plenty of parking) and then entered and queued ( socially distanced for a few more minutes)and then I was with two nurses , one on the computer and the other with the vaccine. They checked my name and address, asked if I had any allergies and then I was jabbed. The queueing and jab took maximum 10 minutes. Over 15 000 000 now vaccinated here. I am 67 years old , but they had finished the first cohort and moved on to the next. ( over 60s or whatever) Thank goodness we got something right at last.

  10. P.S. I got the Astra Zeneca Oxford vaccine which, apparently, does work. They will contact me in a few weeks for second dose.

  11. I had a rdv for the 12th February in Grasse. It was cancelled 10 days ago, vaccines had run out in the region except health professionals. Fair enough.The problem I have is I also had a second one booked for March 10th which will not be administered as I haven’t had the first one! Next, one is not allowed to go out of region. Doctolib is a complete smokescreen for the lack of stock. France did not act quickly enough due to the large “anti vaccine “ percentage of people pre – variant! As a result did not order enough vaccines in the summer. Result? A major shortage especially in the Alpes Maritimes. Not one slot in a month of checking daily on Doctolib. Lamentable . I am in a co-morbidity category and over 65 thus can’t get the Astra Zeneca so must be patient for Sanofi to work with Pfizer to get the correct vaccine?.. The irony is I could have had the vaccine in the UK if I could have gotten back!

  12. I’m in the 75+ category, cannot get an appointment in any Paris centre’s. They tell me how many they’ve vaccinated, and what they plan to do in the next 28 days, but are not open for any bookings now and in the foreseeable future

  13. I’m in Toulouse. I saw my Gp 2 days ago. i’m on the list for the Astra Zeneca. but there is non available her. He was both embarrassed and angry. Have heart disease.

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