PARIS: Healthcare workers in France face suspension from their jobs starting Wednesday (Sep 15) if they have not been vaccinated against COVID-19. With about 300,000 workers still not vaccinated, some hospitals fear staff shortages will add to their strain.
Vaccines are now compulsory for medical care, home care and emergency workers in France, and Wednesday is the deadline for such staff to have had at least one shot. Failing that, they face having pay suspended or not being able to work. But a top court has forbidden staff to be fired outright.
The mandate was approved by France's parliament over the summer, after the government insisted that the measure was needed to protect patients and the public from new surges of COVID-19.
A health ministry letter to local health authorities and healthcare establishments said suspensions would last until the staff member got vaccinated and that the mandate would remain in place even after wider health pass rules expired in November.
More than 113,000 people with the coronavirus have died in France, and health authorities say most of those hospitalised in the most recent surge were not vaccinated.
French authorities said that 84 per cent of nursing homes and hospital staff had received both COVID-19 doses as of Sep 7, and polls suggest most people support the vaccine mandate for medical workers.
But since some hospitals are already facing strains after a year and half of fighting the pandemic and catching up on other treatments, some fear staff shortages could spell disaster.
“We are raising the alarm ... If you insist on implementing this measure, your beds will be closed, thus reducing chances (of survival) for a number of patients,” said Christophe Prudhomme, emergency room doctor and General Confederation of Labour union member, at a protest outside the health ministry on Tuesday.
The government health authority said on Tuesday that 300,000 health workers remained unvaccinated.
ANGER TOWARDS VACCINE MANDATE
For medical secretary Vanessa Perotti, her day at work was brief on Wednesday, lasting long enough to be handed notice of her indefinite suspension because she refuses to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Perotti will only be allowed back if she gets the shot. During her suspension, her salary will be withheld, as will contributions to her pension. She said she would not be entitled to claim unemployment benefits or to offset any of the period with paid annual leave.
It left her with little choice but to quit the health sector, Perotti said.
"I'm disgusted. In any case, there's nothing I can do. I just have to accept it," she said after walking out of the Hopital Baujon in Clichy, a working-class Paris suburb.
Healthcare workers who have had only one dose have to take a virus test every three days until they have completed the second one. The legal deadline for both vaccines to have been completed is Oct 15.
Firms and employers that fail to verify the vaccination statuses of their staff are liable for a US$160 (€135) fine that can rise to US$4,430 for repeated failure.
Amid the population at large, about 87 per cent of adults have received at least one jab and 83 per cent are fully vaccinated in France.
Perotti is among a small minority of healthcare workers refusing the vaccine.
"I'm not going to force myself to get injected with something just to work," Perotti told Reuters a day earlier during a union-led protest.
"Maybe it's harmful, maybe it's not, but I don't want anyone to impose it on me. It's not ethical, we're free to do what we want with our bodies."
President Emmanuel Macron has said freedoms come with responsibilities during a time of health crisis, including a duty to protect the elderly and vulnerable.
Perotti said her work as a secretary meant she did not come into contact with poorly patients.
"It's over," Perotti said, referring to her career in hospitals. "I'm not sure how I'll cope, but I tell myself that every day is a new day."
Many healthcare workers also cite incorrect information about the vaccines circulating online, worry about their long-term effects or want more time to decide. Others are angry at the government and the mandate, not the vaccines themselves.
“I am not a revolutionary, I am just afraid and we are thousands in this situation. I want them to listen to us and sit and talk around a table," said Rachid Ouchem, a medical-psychological assistant at a hospital in Plaisir west of Paris who does not want to be vaccinated and is facing suspension.
“We can’t decide ourselves, we have doubts,” he told The Associated Press. “We had politicians saying one thing and its opposite.”
Scientists note that the vaccines used in France were tested widely and the data shared publicly. Worldwide, 5.7 billion coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered so far, providing a exceptionally broad overview of vaccines’ impact on people’s health.
The vaccine mandate and France’s “health pass” system required for restaurants and other venues have prompted two months of weekly protests by far-right activists and some other groups. Another Paris protest is planned on Wednesday.