PARIS — The French government hired four consultancies to advise on different aspects of the coronavirus vaccination campaign, but faced backlash after its sluggish launch.
Despite hiring leading consultancy firm McKinsey, as first reported by POLITICO, the country is seriously lagging behind most EU countries. It has only vaccinated 5,000 people so far, fewer than Germany (more than 316,000) and Spain (139,000), which started their campaigns at the same time.
The government hired three other consultancy groups in the lead-up to its vaccination campaign, a press person for the health ministry said Wednesday, including IT consultancy Accenture.
The government defended the move by saying there was a need for extra support on logistics.
Hiring external consultants provides "support from the private sector in addition to our civil servants' expertise," said Gabriel Attal, the government spokesperson, during the weekly government press conference. "It's in this context that we used [McKinsey]. As you know logistics ... are central in the vaccination campaign."
"Consultancy firms have been used for several years by multiple governments when they elaborate and implement big projects requiring strategic or logistical support and advice," Attal said.
These consulting groups also provide international benchmarking and best practices more readily and easily than French civil servants can, according to an official close to French President Emmanuel Macron.
The use of pricey consulting firms has stirred controversy, partly in light of the poor results achieved so far.
"I demand complete transparency on contracts awarded, the nature and reality of services supplied by McKinsey to the government," Yannick Jadot, a Green MEP, tweeted Tuesday.
McKinsey has so far declined to comment on the record.
The company started working on the vaccine rollout with the health ministry's vaccine task force on November 30, according to a person close to the case. It was hired to help in “defining the logistical framework,” “establishing logistical benchmarking with other countries,” and “supporting the operational coordination of the task force,” the health ministry said.
Accenture was used for the rollout of the campaign's IT system, while two other firms, Citwell and JLL, were used "for logistical support and vaccine distribution" by Public Health France, a government agency.
The health ministry hired McKinsey as part of a broader framework contract awarded in 2018 and shared with other companies, government officials confirmed, worth a total of €20 million. These contracts allow the government to tap into a pool of consulting firms for specific missions.
“Previously, resorting to outside counsel was not governed by general contracts, which resulted in departments contracting in a hurry with consulting firms that charged very high fees," said an official from the ministry of public action who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The choice we made to rationalize things is to have a global contract for when the ministries need to do urgent work, and there is no additional cost to the State.”
Others said these framework contracts weren't necessarily the best option in a crisis.
“This kind of deal offers legal advantages but not necessary an economic one,” said a public health expert who worked for a previous government. He said that this kind of contract could make it more difficult to get targeted, specialized work on very specific and urgent consulting issues such as the implementation of a vaccine strategy.
Data transparency advocate Joel Gombin, founder of the group Datactivist, said such contracts are hampering accountability when it comes to public decisions.
Nicolas Bauquet, author of a report for the Institut Montaigne think tank on the state's management of the coronavirus pandemic, said: “Using outside consultants isn’t a problem in itself on COVID-19 — Bain & Company were useful on tests in the spring. The heart of the problem is the absence of a strong inter-ministerial body that can lead and coordinate the effort."
The use of consultancy firms to help out with vaccine logistics and the administration's general handling of the pandemic is not unusual elsewhere. In the United States, McKinsey secured millions of dollars in contracts in the first months of the pandemic, according to investigative site ProPublica.
The Boston Consulting Group charged the U.K. £10 million for 40 people to work on the virus test-and-trace program over the course of four months, according to the Guardian.
Government under fire
But French opposition lawmakers harshly criticized the government's move, highlighting the prominence of the country's civil service.
"What an admission of inefficiency and powerlessness! And all our state apparatus, what's the use of it?!?!", tweeted Conservative MP Constance Le Grip.
Her colleague Olivier Marleix, also a conservative, added: "Absolutely staggering! What does McKinsey have to do with this? We have a Department of Health, a Department of the Interior and a Department of Defense in crisis management... As long as we know how to mobilize them."
François-Michel Lambert, former member of Macron’s party La République En Marche and current president of green party Liberty, Ecology and Fraternity, slammed the vaccination campaign, calling it “a logistical failure."
“They only posted a job offer in November,” Lambert said. The lawmaker also attended an interministerial meeting in early December, which was supposed to raise the country’s biggest logistical challenges. He said that the subject of logistical expertise surrounding vaccines was never raised.
“No war can be won without logistics… and when the President said we were at war against Covid, it should have meant 'we are organizing,' even if we don’t have yet all the weapons we will have to use — be it the masks, tests or vaccines,” he said.
This story was updated.