France, announces Le Monde
, in one of those sonorous boasts to which the language is so well suited, '… fait mieux que le Royaume-Uni, pionnier et longtemps champion d'Europe; mieux que l'Allemagne, les Etats-Unis et même Israel…' (… doing better than the UK, pioneer and long-time champion of Europe; better than Germany, the US, even Israel…). Oddly enough, this is a truth rather less prominently reported in the British media. But it is a truth nevertheless. France's Covid vaccination programme has, after a dismally sluggish start, rocketed ahead of everybody else's.
Somewhere about now, the percentage of the population that has received at least one dose of vaccine will overtake the British figures. France is already ahead for numbers with two jags. The torment of pandemic may seem endless, but in some respects it makes time feel shorter. It seems only weeks since the French were enduring a cross-Channel barrage of Brexit bragging because their programme was bogged down in Gallic obduracy and EU ineptitude. In the early months of the year, six times as many Brits as French had been jabbed. As recently as May, first jabs in France stood at less than a quarter of the population, Britain at more than half. Now it is eeksie-peeksie, with 50 million French beneficiaries of a first jab, more than 80% of whom have also had their second. France is vaccinating 3-3.5 million people a week, with first jabs running at nine times the UK rate.
No-one seriously disputes the source of this transformation. It is the vaccination passport, the passe sanitaire, introduced by Emmanuel Macron. And since Scotland is about to launch its own version, the moment seems appropriate to examine just why the French programme has been so successful.
Perhaps the biggest lesson is this: start tough, and get tougher. The passe sanitaire was first introduced for audiences of 1,000 and up from 9 June, and largely ignored. But then, from 21 July, it was extended to venues accommodating as few as 50 people: cinemas, nightclubs, galleries, museums, fairs, and France's ubiquitous summer festivals. This was when the protests started.
The real tipping point came with enforcement of the passe, from 9 August, for all bars and restaurants – even those with outdoor seating – for big shopping centres, and for non-local public transport. Overnight, living a normal French life became impossible without vaccination. Within 24 hours, nearly a million people booked a rendezvous with the syringe. Those who continued to resist effectively placed themselves in individual lockdown, as those around them partied. Out for dinner in Montpellier's old town this week, we found the streets thronged, the bars and brasseries as busy as in any other summer. Presenting the passe sanitaire has become routine.
Second lesson: once you have begun to turn the screw, keep turning. Macron's strategy has been to promise that the passe will disappear when vaccination levels bring France near to herd immunity. Until then, the rules will keep getting tougher. At each new stringency, the next escalation is flagged up. On Monday, the passe became mandatory for 1.8 million employees in public-facing jobs: public servants, catering staff, transport workers. Refuseniks know that, until enough of them toe the line, life will only get harder.
Third lesson: make the system easy and cost-free to join and enforce. Anyone who has had the injections can download or collect the certificate instantly through their accounts with the national health insurance administration. The QR icon on the passe is readable from any device with a screen, or from a paper print-out. Almost everyone keeps it on their phone. To check, businesses need only a tweaked update of the track-and-trace app they used earlier in the pandemic: and no kit more sophisticated than a phone.
Fourth lesson: keep enforcement strict, but be reasonable about access. Passe exemptions are granted to those who have health conditions forbidding vaccination, or who have contracted Covid and subsequently tested clear. For now at least, a certified negative Covid test carried out within the previous 48 hours is acceptable in place of a passe. Queues at testing centres – notably of the young, who were at the back of the vaccination queue – have been long, but are shortening. As of next month, testing, which has been free hitherto, ceases to be so. Once more, the screw tightens.
Fifth lesson: be prepared for bitter opposition, and hold absolutely firm in the face of it. Up to a quarter of a million protestors have taken to the streets of French towns and cities every Saturday since the coercive policies began. Some are people who just like a rammy with the riot police, and others are people who just hate Macron. But there are also those who genuinely believe that an important personal freedom is lost when the state can force you to medicate.
From the first, the authorities have granted the protestors not one inch of concession, and have argued back forcibly against them. They have highlighted the usual suspects in the front ranks of the marches, have pointed out that refusal to vaccinate endangers everyone else too, and have tracked the falling turnouts which, we keep hearing, are now lower each week than the numbers getting vaccinated every day. Polls show an unwavering majority to favour the coercive regime.
So, how do Scotland's plans measure up against the lessons of the French success? Judging by Nicola Sturgeon's statement last week, and the political reaction to it, not well.
France had experienced, as Scotland is, a falling off in vaccination rates. It recognised that, for vaccine passports to reverse this trend, they must offer significant benefits to the vaccinated and significant deprivations to the unvaccinated. The Scottish scheme fails to do this. Anyone who can rub along in life without going to a nightclub or the next Old Firm game, has little to gain, or to lose.
More importantly, iron resolve, the key ingredient of the French approach, is conspicuous by its absence. Sturgeon herself exuded reluctance, stressing the scheme's exemptions. Her deputy, John Swinney, and Health Secretary, Humza Yousaf, have both voiced scepticism. Other parties want none of it. Predictably, the Lib Dems bang on about personal liberties and the Tories about not bothering businesspeople. Less predictably, the Greens, usually comfortable enough with personal sacrifice in the common good, warn about discrimination against the unjagged. Labour's Anas Sarwar says vaccination passports may encourage vaccine refusals, a theory I leave him to explain for himself.
For sure, Scotland has not had to contend with French levels of hostility to vaccination. Yet, the underlying objective of a passport is the same: to avoid the economic and social costs of another lockdown, by ramping up levels of resistance to the virus to such an extent that it cannot surge and spread as before. One might have thought this a goal with which Scottish business lobbies could sympathise. Instead, they are gurning, as ever they do, about tiresome burdens on businesses. French businesses are managing fine.
Half-hearted policies have an unhappy history in this pandemic. As I write, infection levels are falling in France and rising in Scotland. Last year, the end of the holiday season ushered in a surge in both countries. It may do so again. Can another ruinous lockdown be avoided? The French Government seems quietly confident that now it can.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster