Proof of French government's lies over shortages of protective masks

An investigation by Mediapart has revealed the chaotic management at the highest levels of the French state over the crucial issue of providing protective masks to help tackle the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Our probe, which has analysed the situation since January and is based on numerous witness accounts and documentary evidence, highlights the hidden shortages, the unreliable health instructions, the neglected offers of help with importing masks, the continuing shortage of stocks and the way that some companies have been favoured. It also reveals the lies that have accompanied this mismanagement. Meanwhile hundreds of nurses have become infected with the virus. Yann Philippin, Antton Rouget and Marine Turchi report.

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Mediapart today publishes the results of an investigation which reveals the mismanagement at the highest levels of the French state over the key issue of protective masks. These errors, which have occurred from January right to the current day, amount to a state lie and have led France to an unthinkable situation: a shortage of masks for healthcare workers on the front line in the battle against Covid-19 coronavirus crisis, and for the public in general.

A nurse holds the hand of a patient with Covid-19 in the intensive care unit of a hospital in the south of France. © Frédéric Dides/AFP A nurse holds the hand of a patient with Covid-19 in the intensive care unit of a hospital in the south of France. © Frédéric Dides/AFP
Based on numerous witness accounts and confidential documents that Mediapart has seen, our investigation, which was conducted over several weeks, shows that:

  • At the end of January and start of February the Ministry of Health, though aware of the state's low stocks, only ordered a small number of masks, despite internal warnings. This equipment then took several weeks to arrive.

  • After this first fiasco, at the start of March the French state created an inter-ministerial unit dedicated to buying masks. But once again the outcome was catastrophic: during the first three weeks of March this unit only obtained 40 million masks, enough for just one week at current rates of use. In particular the unit missed several opportunities to obtain rapid deliveries of supplies.

  • The government hid this shortage for nearly two months and adapted its health advice on wearing masks according to the level of stocks. At the end of February the country's top health official recommended wearing a mask for anyone in contact with a person with the virus. A month later the government's spokesperson said it was pointless.

  • Some companies in “non-essential” sectors of the economy continued to use masks for economic reasons. An example is the aircraft manufacturer Airbus who seem to have received favourable treatment. At the same time some nursing staff have continued to work without protective masks because of insufficient supplies.

  • The government is now trying to replenish the stocks, accompanied by a completely new strategy in which they are having to prepare for the end of the lockdown “when we know [the public] will need to be massively equipped”, as the junior economy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher admitted in a meeting of which Mediapart has obtained a recording.

Below Mediapart sets out the different stages of this unfolding tragedy.

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ACT I (end of January 2020). A lie about a shortage

“The big mistake in the US and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks,” George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told Science magazine on March 27th. The virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact, and droplets play a “very important role” said the Chinese official who was on the front line in the battle against Covid-19. “You’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others,” said Gao.

The problem was that in mid-January, when the epidemic started in China, stocks of masks were almost non-existent in France.

Mediapart understands that at this time there were fewer than 80 million 'surgical' masks in France plus a further 80 million which had been ordered but not delivered, and zero stocks of the more protective 'FFP2' masks.

Surgical masks are the basic masks against projecting the virus, designed for the public and with a period of usefulness limited to four hours. They do not protect those who wear them but stop the wearer from infecting others.

The second type, plus the top of the range FFP3 masks, are protective respirator masks to be used by nursing staff. Only the FFP2 and FFP3 masks protect the wearer. During a pandemic they should be given to all staff who are the most exposed to the virus: hospital nurses and doctors, GPs, firefighters, ambulance staff and so on. Yet France had no stocks of these.

That decision was made not by the current government but its predecessor. In 2013 the then-minister of health, Marisol Touraine, had in fact decided to get rid of the state's strategic stocks and to transfer responsibility for them to employers, whether public or private, who from then on had the task of “establishing mask stocks to protect their staff”.

Rather than being transparent about this shortage – which was not of their doing – and explaining that the few stocks that were available would be reserved for nurses, prime minister Édouard Philippe and his government chose not to inform the French public. And they used false health arguments to hide the inadequate stocks. First the government explained that the masks were useless for the general public, then that they were not effective because French people did not know how to wear them before, belatedly, the government has switched to trying to “massively” equip the public in order to get ready for the end of the current lockdown.

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ACT II (end of January, early February). A slow and inadequate reaction

By the end of January some in the team around Jérôme Salomon, the country's director general of health and the top public servant on health issues, were already getting worried, Mediapart understands. But politicians did not dare admit to the public that there was a risk of a shortage of masks and preferred to say initially that the masks were useless – until such time as the orders arrived.

On January 24th, a few hours before the confirmation of three European – French – cases of Covid-19, the health minister at the time, Agnès Buzyn, sought to reassure people as she left that day's scheduled meeting of ministers: “The risks of the spread of the virus in the population [editor's note, French population] are very small.”

Agnès Buzyn and Olivier Véran, as the former handed over to the latter as health minister on February 17th 2020. © Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP Agnès Buzyn and Olivier Véran, as the former handed over to the latter as health minister on February 17th 2020. © Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP
Two days later, as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control upgraded the risk of the disease being imported into the European Union, the minister used an interview on RTL radio to dissuade people from wearing a mask which she said was only useful “when you're ill”. Agnès Buzyn said: “When you pass someone in the street the risk of catching the virus is low.” She also said that “tens of millions of masks [are] in stock in case of emergency”, and that “all of that is being handled perfectly well by the authorities”. She added: “If one day masks have to be worn then we will distribute the mask, there's absolutely no need to go out and buy one.”

The French public took no notice. From mid-January “many people rushed into the chemists, into DIY stores to buy masks, online, everywhere. It quickly emptied stocks,” said the commercial director for the West Mediterranean area for American manufacturer 3M, one of the world leaders in making masks, in a confidential internal meeting. The emptying of supplies was hastened by the fact that “many masks stocked in France went to China or elsewhere”. The commercial shortage was so acute that from the end of January 3M “stopped supplying” French chemists and “prioritised” the hospitals, the commercial director said.

Health minister Agnès Buzyn's comments were also completely out of step with the reality experienced at that very moment by the Ministry of Health's own crisis unit which was studying a plan of action of the different stages of the epidemic. The 25-strong unit, which is made up of staff from the ministry's monitoring centre CORRUSS and its health security monitoring directorate, was worried about the low stocks of masks. “We started to get worried and we got ready for battle to buy them in massive numbers at the end of January,” one member of this crisis unit told Mediapart, on condition of remaining anonymous.

On January 24th the Direction de Générale de la Santé (DGS), the body that oversees health policy in France and which is headed by Jérôme Salomon, asked the public health agency Santé Publique France (SPF), which is under the authority of the ministry, to carry out an inventory of medical supplies. On January 30th the DGS then asked the public health agency to buy “as soon as possible” 1.1 million FFP2 masks only, according to a document seen by Mediapart:

The order for protective equipment made by the Direction Générale de la Santé (DGS) on January 30th 2020. © Document Mediapart The order for protective equipment made by the Direction Générale de la Santé (DGS) on January 30th 2020. © Document Mediapart
When it came to surgical masks the DGS did not recommend any new provisionment other than the order of 80 million masks already made before the arrival of the epidemic and which was intended to boost the national stocks to around 160 million. In the eyes of the health authorities at the time that seemed enough.

On February 7th the DGS made a new request for the public health agency. This time it was to buy 28.4 million FFP2 masks via an “accelerated purchase procedure” by contacting just the three main French producers. No new orders were made for surgical masks. Moreover, the DGS ordered supplies of 810,000 surgical masks with short expiry dates (March 31st or August 31st 2020) to be sent to China.

Two weeks after the first DGS purchase request, the results were catastrophic. By February 12th, out of the 28.4 million FFP2 masks asked for, the SPF had received just 500,000 and had ordered another 250,000 which had not yet arrived. As for the planned 160 million surgical masks, there was still a shortfall of 30 million masks which had been ordered but not delivered.

Inside the Ministry of Health concern was growing as officials worried about the problems of supplies and the slowness of Santé Publique France to react. At an internal meeting on February 11th it was acknowledged that the goal of achieving 28.4 million FFP2 masks was in jeopardy. That did not stop the new health minister – by now Olivier Véran had replaced Agnès Buzyn who had become President Emmanuel Macron's preferred candidate to be mayor of Paris in the March local elections – to declare several times on France Inter radio on February 18th that “France is ready” faced with the “risk of a pandemic”.

How can this fiasco be explained? The Ministry of Health insists that it came up against a very competitive market – limited supplies, growing demand across the world, rising prices – in particular against Asian countries who already have their usual supply chains. But the government had clearly committed several errors: making very low-volume orders that were too late and too scattergun – each ministry ordered for itself, reducing the buying power in negotiations. Finally, the executive had used public contract procedures that are ill-suited to an emergency. This includes those operating at European Union level.

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Those from the business world who have approached the government and state agencies with propositions for importing masks and who agreed to be interviewed by Mediapart all asked for their true identities to be withheld. They provided numerous documents detailing their correspondence with state bodies and demonstrating their relations with Chinese suppliers of masks (including emails, photos, and certification certificates).

All the replies to Mediapart’s questions submitted to various bodies and people can be found (in French) by clicking on the “More” tab, top of page.

Contacted by Mediapart on March 29th, the French prime minister’s office, the French public health authority Santé publique France (SPF), and the public health administration – the Direction générale de la santé (DGS) – declined to offer any comment on the findings of this report, and all advised us to contact the health ministry for a reply to our questions. After asking on six occasions for a further delay to her response, the health ministry PR (“communications”) advisor, Ségolène Redon, failed to reply to 34 questions addressed to the ministry, before finally transmitting to Mediapart, on April 1st, a lengthy chronological report on how the government has handled the Covid-19 health crisis (entitled “Déroulé de la gestion de crise”).

Contacted by Mediapart on March 29th about his actions and those of the SPF, Martial Mettendorff (who was deputy managing director of the SPF until the end of February, and subsequently head of the “masks unit” within the inter-ministerial team until the end of March) declined to answer our questions, advising us instead to contact his successor, the general commissaire of the French armed forces, Bernard Chassac. Contacted by Mediapart, the latter failed to reply to our questions.

Also contacted by Mediapart, former health minister Agnès Buzyn, who stood down from her post in February to run as candidate for President Emmanuel Macron’s LREM party in the Paris mayoral elections, and Jérôme Salomon, head of the DGS, both failed to answer our questions.

Junior economy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher was also contacted by Mediapart for her comments on the findings of this report, and declined to answer questions submitted to her by explaining that her “agenda” did not allow her to do so. On the subject of her statements addressed to the textile sector on March 27th about the need to “massively equip” the population with masks following the legally-enforced lockdown on public movement, Pannier-Runacher’s ministerial secretariat told Mediapart that she had “no comments to make about working meetings”, and that “the doctrine about the use of protection masks as well as all health questions are exclusively the domain of the Ministry of Health”.

The European Commission answered questions submitted to it by Mediapart in an email response dated March 30th, as did also the greater Paris region (Région Île-de-France) local council authority. The regional health authority agency (ARS) branch in the Grand-Est region (of north-east France), responded to Mediapart’s questions by email on April 1st.

Airbus replied by email to questions submitted to it by Mediapart. The companies 3M and Geodis replied to Mediapart’s questions, respectively, by email and phone text messaging, but without responding to precise issues raised in the questions.