Coronavirus: France orders 250 million masks to ease shortage

European countries are grappling with surges in demand for protective gear as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads

TOPSHOT - A man walks his dog at the Champs de mars on March 21, 2020 in Paris as a strict lockdown comes into in effect in France to stop the spread of COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus. A strict lockdown requiring most people in France to remain at home came into effect at midday on March 17, 2020, prohibiting all but essential outings in a bid to curb the coronavirus spread. The government has said tens of thousands of police will be patrolling streets and issuing fines of 135 euros ($150) for people without a written declaration justifying their reasons for being out / AFP / JOEL SAGET

France has ordered 250 million surgical 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.

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

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

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

“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 lockdown since Tuesday with citizens allowed out of 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 14,485 cases of coronavirus in the country, and 562 deaths.

The pandemic has triggered a surge in demand for protective gear in France and neighbouring countries including Italy and Spain.

China, where the virus originated, and where countless factories were shut down, makes more than half the masks used globally, the World Health Organisation said.

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

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

Mr Veran said the government would increase up testing too, following WHO guidelines. The government had previously said testing should be offered only to those showing severe symptoms.

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