PARIS, Dec 4: French Prime Minister Jean Castex said a three-phase COVID-19 vaccination programme will be launched in "a matter of weeks" and people will have the jabs free of charge and voluntarily.
At a weekly briefing on the epidemic situation, Castex on Thursday said the vaccination campaign would be deployed gradually "according to a simple logic: priority is given to the most vulnerable people and those most likely to develop serious forms of the disease", Xinhua news agency reported.
Involving one million people, the first stage in early January will target the elderly in nursing homes and their medical staff who are at risk.
In the second phase in February, the government expects to inoculate 14 million people with age-related health risks or chronic diseases. A broader vaccination aimed at the general public is planned for the spring.
"We will be ready for the first vaccinations as soon as the vaccines are available," Castex told reporters.
France has ordered some 200 million doses from different pharmaceutical companies to inoculate 100 million people, more than France's 67 million inhabitants as "a margin of safety", he added.
The vaccines, which cost 1.5 billion euros (US $1.82 billion), would be free for all and not mandatory, Castex said, noting that the vaccination plan was based on three pillars -- "security, transparency and proximity".
"I hear the reluctance, the fears expressed by each of you ... We will not start anything without the prior opinion of the National Authority for Health," he said in response to growing skepticism over vaccines.
"We need to get the most numerous vaccinated. Getting vaccinated is also protecting others; it's an altruistic act," he added.
The same stance was echoed by Health Minister Olivier Veran, who called the vaccine an opportunity to reduce the number of serious coronavirus cases, protect citizens and the country's sanitary system, and ensure health security.
"The fear of the vaccine will not stop the virus," he said.
Veran, however, noted that "over the next few months, the vaccine will not fundamentally change the course of the epidemic," calling on people to remain vigilant and continue to respect barrier gestures and wear masks.
Pending regulatory approval by the European Medicines Agency by December 29, the French government will present its vaccination strategy to parliament for debate this month.
As of Thursday, over 2.2 million people in France have caught the respiratory illness, a single-day increase of 12,696, lower than 14,064 cases confirmed on Wednesday.
A further 324 patients lost their lives to the virus, taking the total to 54,140. The number of hospitalizations dropped by 310 to 26,703, of which 3,425 are in intensive care units, down by 63.
According to Castex, France "is recording the strongest and fastest drop in the epidemic pressure in Europe" as a result of night curfew and lockdown.
"The epidemic situation is improving, but it's still fragile...Let us keep in mind the reality of the risk of the epidemic resurgence," he warned. - IANS