France has reported 182,913 coronavirus cases so far – the seventh highest in the world and third largest in the European Union behind Italy and Spain. More worryingly, more than 33,000 people have died from coronavirus COVID-19 in the country – the third highest death toll in the world behind only the US and Britain. As the first signs of coronavirus arrived in the country in the winter, hundreds of thousands of face masks were being burnt as part of a cost-cutting programme to run down the stock of the protective item, which had reached a peak of 1.7 billion in 2011.
The move went largely unquestioned, until France discovered to its horror the number of masks available plummeted by 177 million, leaving health workers struggling to get hold of the vital protective medical item.
This huge crisis has dealt another blow to the public’s support of the French Government and in particular, the under-pressure President Emmanuel Macron, who is facing accusations of incompetence for allowing the destruction of masks to continue even after the virus had been reported in France.
Mr Macron’s Government has also been accused of lying for initially claiming there is no point wearing masks in public.
The crisis is in danger of destroying all thee hard work the President has done to woo the public over the past two months, such as placing 12.7 million workers into a furlough scheme that can enable some to earn almost €7,000 a month.
Doctors have turned against Emmanuel Macron and his government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis
The French President is under pressure over his Government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis
Pierre Giacometti, a leading pollster and the founder of the No Com political strategy consultancy, told The Times: “The handling of the masks has really damaged his image.
“People have the impression that he didn’t have a clear vision of what he was doing and tried to hide the truth from them.”
Jean-Paul Hamon, chairman of the Federation of Doctors of France who has been among 4,000 GPs infected with COVID-19 so far, suspected there was a huge problem looming in February after a British tourist infected five people in the French Alps.
Mr Hamon was summoned to a meeting with health ministry officials two days later, and was told GPs would be equipped with high performance FFP2 masks.
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However, he said: “But eight days after that, they called to say they had changed their minds and decided that GPs didn’t need FFP2 masks after all, and that an ordinary surgical mask would be adequate so long as our patients wore one, too.
“The trouble was, there weren’t enough masks for patients. That’s when we started to think something was up.”
Dr Hamon assumed France was about to implement a strategy developed amid the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the swine flu epidemic six years later, which left a stockpile of 714 million FFP2 masks and more than one billion surgical masks.
But officials began scaling back the contingency planning for pandemics after noticing that neither SARS nor swine flu were as deadly as initially feared, with old masks being destroyed and not replaced.
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The coronavirus pandemic quickly swept through France
France has reported more than coronavirus cases so far – the seventh highest in the world
Shockingly, more than 1.5 million masks were burnt in warehouses in the village of Marolles between January and March before Prime Minister Edouard Philippe discovered the extent of the looming crisis and put a stop to it.
The stores still contained more than 360 million masks, but they were deemed to old to be effective as they dated back as far as 2005.
The government then discovered its total stock of masks in warehouses has fallen to 117 million – significantly short of the 40 million mask a week required for France’s tens of thousands of health workers.
Dr Hamon recovered from his coronavirus illness but more than 35 GPs have died so far, a number he warned could have been dramatically reduced by the distribution of FFP2 masks.
There have been nearly 5.8 million coronavirus cases and over 350,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the world
He raged: “Ministers lied when the said FFP2 masks weren’t necessary for GPs, and they lied again when they said there was no point in providing ordinary face masks for the general public.”
But that advice delivered by President Macron’s Government was reversed last month after more than two billion masks were flown in from China. Face masks are now recommended in shops and obligatory on trains.
Dr Hamon is still furious, and said: “They should have owned up and said, ‘OK, we cocked up, we thought we had enough masks but in fact we don’t and we’ll just have to muddle through until our production capacities increase’.
“But instead, they dissimulated and said masks weren’t necessary. That was their big error.”