Resist, resign and playing for time: French health workers bid to avoid compulsory COVID vaccination

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As France entered a variant-fuelled fourth wave of coronavirus, the government controversially intervened to increase the take-up of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The carrot for the French to get the shot was a move to make access to restaurants, cafes and bars harder for those unvaccinated — roughly 30% of the adult population, with 69% fully inoculated as of August 10.

The stick was to tell healthcare workers they had to get the vaccine by September 15. Those who refuse face a suspension of their contract without pay.

Thousands have hit the streets in recent weeks to protest against the rules. Slogans such as “My body, my choice!”, “The right to say no!” and “No to compulsory vaccination!” are often heard.

The government says it’s a moral duty for health professionals to get vaccinated in order to protect vulnerable patients under their care. The law’s objective, France’s health minister Olivier Véran told reporters last week, is that “caregivers, those who treat, are not those who risk infecting people, those who absolutely did not ask to get sick”.

The new rules concern not only medical professionals but all those who work with vulnerable populations, including firefighters.

Most professional organisations agree, and many co-signed a text with the government last month in support of mandatory vaccination.

The vast majority of French medical professionals have had at least one vaccine dose — 88% for private practitioners and 77% for care home workers, according to the latest figures released by the French public health agency.

Yet a sizable minority is still resisting the government’s decision to make vaccination compulsory for their professions.

Euronews spoke to these professionals to understand the reasons behind their mobilisation and the impact it will have — both on an individual level and for the already understaffed health care and social sectors.

Why are some French health workers against mandatory vaccination?

“We consider that we have the same right as any citizen to decide if and when to be vaccinated or not,” said firefighter Abdellah Chaouch, who leads a local section of CGT-SDIS labour union in Seine-et-Marne, near Paris.

“We don’t understand the government’s choice not to leave firefighters the ability to decide,” Chaouch told Euronews, calling the new policy “liberticidal”.

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Dominique Chave, a nursing auxiliary, and Rodolphe Verger, a nurse, both senior members of the health branch of CGT, denied their movement was anti-vaccine.

“We don’t have a point of view on whether this vaccine is good or not,” Verger told Euronews.

“In some discourse, health professionals are being accused, people say: ‘they know so they should lead by example.’ That’s the point, they know and they know what a conditional marketing authorisation means. If it’s conditional, it means the drug presents risks that have not been fully evaluated,” the nurse claimed. “So what we’re defending is respect for freedom of choice given the current state of the evidence.”

The European Medicine Agency has granted conditional marketing authorisation to four COVID-19 jabs since December last year, saying in all cases that the benefits far outweighed the risks of possible side effects.

According to the CGT unionists, many health professionals feel frustrated to be vilified for refusing vaccination after being treated like heroes during the first wave of the pandemic.

“Just a year ago, we were sent to work without any protective equipment. Even when we said we had COVID-19, we were told to go to work and denied sick leave, knowing that there was a risk of infecting patients because we were sick and because we had no protection. So the same people today tell us, ‘how come you do not want to get vaccinated? You are irresponsible, you risk infecting patients.’ It’s angering everyone, including those who got vaccinated spontaneously,” Chave said.

The CGT says that while health professionals were “overexposed to the virus at the start of the pandemic due to the state’s negligence in the management of personal protective equipment”, no public health survey was launched to measure the rate of herd immunity in the profession.

In a statement released last week, the union also slammed the sanctions against employees who resist vaccination.

“Suspending an employee from all activities or preventing her/him from being recruited is discriminatory and unacceptable. It also scandalous to deprive an agent of his salary or of a replacement income,” CGT said. “The poorest workers will be the most impacted.”

The health branch of SUD, another labour union, has also called workers to join protests against the health pass, calling it “an attack against labour law.” It said its mobilisation had “nothing to do with the gatherings initiated by the far-right and conspiracy theorists, which we are opposing.”

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What are the options for workers who refuse mandatory vaccination?

Workers who resist vaccination may try to gain time until the new rules cease to apply, according to the professionals interviewed by Euronews.

“A majority is in a spirit of gaining time until we don’t have this mandatory vaccination like a spectre above our heads,” Chave said, noting that the current legislation was currently scheduled to apply until mid-November — even if it could possibly be extended.

One way to do so is to take sick leave or annual leave.

“There are many firefighters who are now on sick leave, who refuse to be vaccinated. They are able to take up their jobs, but they have either taken their annual leave or are on sick leave,” Chaouch told Euronews.

Resigning is another option for those professionals who are resisting mandatory vaccination.

“We’re already seeing resignations,” said Chave. For these workers, mandatory vaccination is “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he explained. “Even before this health crisis, working and even salary conditions were already quite harrowing. The pandemic has only exacerbated the lack of resources.”

Another category of workers will rely on the fact that sanctions may be difficult to implement, Chave told Euronews.

“Some colleagues say ‘I’ll go all the way and see what the director will do.’ Because it’s one thing to say it’s sanctionable and another to actually implement the sanctions.”

“I think all the management in hospitals are wondering how to do it,” he said, invoking principles of medical secrecy in the public service and current rules on sanctioning professional malpractice.

“If you put all these categories together, you get quite a few people,” he said.

What are the consequences for health care and social services?

Chaouch told Euronews that the impact of the new legislation was already being felt in many fire service stations.

In his Seine et Marne district, about 350 firefighters are normally on call on a daily basis, but at the moment “we’re short of almost 100 staff on guard,” he said.

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“Of course, there are also the summer holidays which are affecting the availability of volunteers. But I think mandatory vaccination did not help. This is huge,” he said.

Chave noted that recruiting health professionals was already a challenge in many health care facilities, especially care homes.

“All health facilities, be they public or private hospitals, currently face a huge shortage of health professionals (…) And I think that mandatory vaccination is necessarily going to have an additional impact. We didn’t need that, clearly. ”

The same situation prevails with firefighters stations.

“We already have recruitment problems, independently from the health pass. I’ve never seen so many resignations and extended leave requests. Do you think the vaccine pass will improve the situation? Certainly not,” Chaouch said.

Several unions, including CGT and SUD, have issued calls for “unlimited strikes” against mandatory vaccination as the new law entered into force this week.

Asked about the impact of the strike, Chave said it was “a little early to talk about it today, since our strike notice was from August 9.”

For firefighters, the impact will be limited considering that most strikers are “requisitioned” to work almost systematically to ensure the continuity of public service, said Chaouch.

Speaking to reporters last week, Health Minister Olivier Véran displayed the government’s determination to implement the new rules despite protests. “The law will apply,” he insisted.

“The time will come when these people will no longer have the leisure to strike since, by definition, this vaccination obligation will apply,” he said.

What do the rules say exactly?

Until September 15, health and care sectors professionals who have not been fully vaccinated have the possibility of presenting a certificate of recovery or a negative test taken within 72 hours. For many professionals, this means they will have to get tested several times a week to go to work.

From September 15 until October 15, they will have to prove they received at least their first jab and show a negative test. After October 15, they should be fully vaccinated.

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