March 21, 2020 / 6:26 PM / 12 days ago

France orders 250 million masks to ease coronavirus shortage

PARIS (Reuters) - France has ordered 250 million surgical face masks to ease an acute shortage nationwide that has drawn anger from frontline doctors and threats from police unions to walk off the job as the coronavirus outbreak worsens.

FILE PHOTO: People shop for fruits and vegetables at the Bastille Market in Paris as a lockdown is imposed to slow the rate of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in France, March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Health Minister Olivier Veran said the order had been placed with French and foreign suppliers, and he also promised more tests for suspected coronavirus cases.

“I want to tell the French people, especially healthcare professionals, that I understand and share their expectations, and sometimes their anger,” Veran told a news conference.

The government would launch a review into the shortage of protective gear at a later time, he added.

“We’ll learn lessons in due course about how we prepared our country for a threat which, I remind you, is the first public health crisis in a century.”

France has been under virtual lockdown since Tuesday with citizens allowed out of the their homes only to buy groceries, go to work, exercise alone or seek medical care.

The government has said it will extend the initial two-week confinement period if needed.

There have been 12,612 cases of coronavirus in France, and 450 deaths.

The pandemic has triggered a massive surge in demand for protective gear in France and neighbouring European countries including Italy and Spain. China, where the virus originated, and where countless factories were shut down, accounts for more than half the global production of masks, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Companies such as Louis Vuitton owner LVMH and French bank Crédit Agricole have joined the effort to source masks, with LVMH saying on Saturday it was ordering 40 million.

In 2013, France took the decision to reduce the number of masks held in strategic reserve after a public outcry over the cost of bolstering stocks during the H1N1 bird flu crisis. 

Veran said the government would ramp up testing too, following WHO guidelines. Until now, the government said testing should be made available only for those showing severe symptoms.

“What is at stake here is to multiply the number of tests once the lockdown is lifted,” Veran said.

Hospitals in the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg have offered to treat some critically ill coronavirus patients from the neighbouring French region of Alsace.

Reporting by Caroline Pailliez and Mathieu Rosemain; Additional reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Richard Lough and Frances Kerry

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