Across the Atlantic, in France, it’s a gamble that is beginning to pay off.
Despite a slow start to its vaccination rollout earlier this year, fueled by supply-chain issues that culminated in a bruising public battle with AstraZeneca over delivery shortfalls and blood clot concerns, France finally got its program up and running in the spring. By May, the country reached its goal of partially vaccinating 20 million people — 30% of its population. But then it quickly started to hit a wall.
In July, with France’s vaccination rate stagnating and coronavirus cases surging, French President Emmanuel Macron imposed sweeping vaccination requirements for much of daily life.
As of August 1, anyone without a “health pass” showing proof of their vaccination status or a recent negative test, would not be able to enter bars and cafes, or travel long distances by train, Macron said. Health care staff workers — a group of roughly 2.7 million people in France — who are not vaccinated by Wednesday, face being fired or suspended without pay.
Macron’s move was a calculated risk in a country where a deep cultural belief in individual liberties and a distrust of government has manifested in vaccine hesitancy.
“Clearly, Emmanuel Macron took a risk,” said Bruno Cautres, a political analyst at the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po in Paris.
“He took a risk to say I will make the life of the non-vaccinated very difficult, which is a very, very, very dangerous statement for an executive.”
As the proposal went to French lawmakers, protesters began weekly demonstrations against the health pass. On July 31, more than 200,000 people took to streets across France, a mix of those opposed to the health pass and its restrictions on freedoms, and people reluctant to get vaccinated entirely.
Yet for all the noise, many more French people were voting with their feet in support of the pass, and extending their arms. On the same day, 532,000 people were vaccinated, according to France’s health ministry.
Despite some early opposition, Macron’s risk looks to be reaping significant rewards.
Immediately following Macron’s speech on July 12, there was a spike in vaccination appointments in France. Doctolib, the main platform for booking jabs in the country, saw 1 million appointments made in 24 hours. Thanks in part to its swelling vaccination rate — along with a massive increase in testing linked to the Covid pass, and the reintroduction of mask mandates in regions badly hit by the Delta variant — mainland France managed to largely sidestep the fourth wave that swept through Europe and the US.
A month into France’s new health pass regime, data from the country’s health agency show an overall decline in hospital and ICU admissions since the summer highs. And while public health experts are waiting to see if the decline will continue, many are cautiously optimistic.
“In the few minutes after the [Macron’s] announcement, there was a record hit in the number of reservations to vaccinate. And this continued also on the following days. And what we see now is that they’re still increasing,” Vittoria Colliza, a Paris-based epidemiologist at Inserm, the French public-health research center, told CNN in a phone interview in August.
“I think that in terms of incentives, this is really working. And the sanitary pass itself also has a second effect … the limiting of contact risk in our social daily life, so this should have an effect in terms of the number of cases.”
Now the US is looking to replicate some of France’s success.
Last Thursday, President Biden imposed stringent new vaccine rules on most federal workers, health care staff and companies with 100 or more employees. Announcing the move, which could affect as many as 100 million Americans, Biden expressed frustration at the unvaccinated. “We’ve been patient, but our patience is…