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French Senate report says government failed to heed mask stockpile warnings

Posted December 10, 2020 6:12 p.m. EST

— A new report from the French Senate alleges that the country's health policy authority failed to heed expert warnings about its stockpile of personal protective equipment, leaving it under-equipped for this year's outbreak of Covid-19.

The report, which is the product of several months worth of hearings and investigations by a Senate commission of inquiry, also accuses Jérôme Salomon, a senior health official, of attempting to cover up the alleged misstep.

Salomon leads the country's General Directorate for Health, which forms and executes health policy. The agency has defended his actions and denied any wrongdoing.

The report accuses Salomon of ordering a stockpile of only 100 million surgical masks two years ago, despite recommendations from an independent committee of public health experts that the country keep 1 billion on hand in the event of an emergency.

The report included emails supplied by Salomon, which it claims show that he "intervened directly" in an attempt to push the committee to modify its mask stockpile recommendations memo. It also alleged that the publicly available version of those recommendations was modified from the initial version.

In a statement released Thursday night, the General Directorate for Health denied that Salomon had exerted any undue pressure on the independent committee regarding its PPE stockpile recommendations.

It also said that Salomon had been completely transparent -- pointing to the fact that he voluntarily provided his email exchanges with members of the commission.

"Discussions took place between the General Directorate for Health and France's public health agency to make changes to the reports, exchanges that are part of a normal relationship between a public agency under supervision and its supervising authority within the framework of its missions," the General Directorate for Health statement said.

The resulting changes "were accepted by all contributors," it said.

Both the General Directorate for Health and France's public health agency -- which is in charge of epidemiological surveillance -- are part of the French Health Ministry.

Senator Catherine Deroche, a member of the opposition conservative party who sat on the committee, said the decision in 2018 proved costly to French taxpayers.

France spent 450 million euros ($546 million) on masks this year. Had they ordered the masks in 2018, when demand was down, it would have only cost 27 million euros ($33 million), according to Deroche.

Deroche also alleged that Salomon ordered that 613 million masks that did not comply with new health standards be destroyed "without referring to the political authorities" and "without even checking that supply capacities would be sufficient in the event of a crisis."

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