Coronavirus: France sets out first public inquiry into handling of pandemic

Paris virus investigation comes amid growing pressure in world capitals to explain response to Covid-19 crisis

(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 11, 2020 a woman wearing a face mask walks as a French national flag flies on the Eiffel Tower in background in Paris on the first day of France's easing of lockdown measures in place for 55 days to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the novel coronavirus. The Eiffel Tower, one of the most visited sites in Paris, will reopen to the public on June 25 more than three months after shuttering in France's coronavirus lockdown, its operators said Tuesday. / AFP / PHILIPPE LOPEZ

The first of what could be many public inquiries worldwide into government handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been announced in France today.

The investigation will be led by the chief prosecutor of Paris after he launched a preliminary inquiry into the authorities’ response to the outbreak.

Prosecutor Remy Heitz will investigate potential criminal offences after he received 62 complaints. He will examine the handling of the pandemic by public bodies, including government ministries, local authorities and nursing homes.

Mr Heitz indicated that possible charges against officials could involve “involuntary homicide” and “endangering life”.

Other countries will now face calls to launch probes over their governments’ action when the infection spread across Europe. Pressure is growing in Britain for Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, and his senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, to answer questions on core decisions over the lockdown delay and a shortage of protective equipment. With the second-highest death toll in the world, recording more than 40,000 fatalities, Britain’s handling of the pandemic has been criticised.

The French investigation comes after complaints were filed by civil groups and members of the public over alleged failures to put in place antivirus protections at the workplace, to provide face masks and to carry out mass testing.

The virus has claimed more than 29,000 lives in France with almost 200,000 people infected.

The investigation is not aimed at determining “political or administrative responsibility,” Mr Heitz told news agencies, but whether national decision-makers had committed “possible criminal offences”.

French President Emmanuel Macron, as head of state, has immunity from prosecution and is not a target of the inquiry, nor are government ministers who can be held accountable only by the Republican Court of Justice, an administrative tribunal.

The Paris prosecutor’s office has jurisdiction over issues of national public health and over crimes allegedly committed within the borders of the city, where most of the state authorities targeted by Mr Heitz’s inquiry are located.

Possible charges of involuntary homicide, involuntary injury, endangering life, failure to combat a threat and non-assistance to persons in danger are now being examined by a branch of the prosecutor’s office dedicated to alleged threats to public health.

"If there is criminal wrongdoing, it will probably have been, it's a hypothesis, unintentional," Mr Heitz said.
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