An investigation by French daily Le Monde has uncovered the extraordinary chain of events that led successive French governments to build an ambitious pandemic response strategy and then dismantle it almost entirely, leaving the country dangerously exposed to the Covid-19 disease.
Writing in the same paper in late March of this year, the renowned health economist Claude Le Pen, who would die of cancer only weeks later, said Bachelots actions had instilled among high-ranking civil servants “a sense that the government had overestimated the crisis and, ultimately, squandered public funds for the benefit of pharmaceutical laboratories”.
Hoping to deflect responsibility for the “disarmament” that left France so dangerously exposed a decade later, the health ministers successors have blamed those civil servants – the “deep state” – and each other for gradually stripping France of its defences.
After Bachelots demotion to a junior cabinet role in late 2010, Bertrand was put back in the saddle. But the context had changed dramatically since his first stint as health minister. These were the scandal-plagued twilight years of Sarkozys presidency. On top of pandemic fatigue, Bertrand had to grapple with stringent belt-tightening measures amid a global economic downturn and a European “debt crisis”.
In late 2011, a government directive signalled a change of doctrine, splitting the states reserves of protective gear into two: a “strategic” stock of surgical masks for the general public, held by the state, and a “tactical” stock of FFP2 masks for health workers, to be held and replenished by regional health authorities and individual hospitals.
The change of direction was cemented by subsequent reforms implemented under the Socialist administration that came to power in 2012. They effectively devolved the management of “tactical” reserves to institutions focused on short-term-imperatives and struggling with budget cuts – with the effect that Frances precious FFP2 reserves expired and were never replaced.
“In the space of just two years, the state had passed on the baton, in the name of decentralisation and, above all, budgetary constraint,” write Le Mondes Davet and Lhomme. As for the Eprus, it was incorporated and diluted in a much larger structure, known as Santé publique France, reversing a decade-long policy modelled on the American CDC.
A bonfire of masks
France is not the only country to have rolled back or “forgotten” its pandemic response plans along the way.
An investigation by British daily The Times found that preparations for a pandemic had been a top priority of the UK government for a decade after the September 11 attacks, before falling victim to austerity cuts.
“We were the envy of the world,” an unnamed source in the prime ministers office told the newspaper. “But pandemic planning became a casualty of the austerity years when there were more pressing needs.” The source added that preparations for a no-deal Brexit “sucked all the blood out of pandemic planning”.
Likewise, years of neglect sucked the blood out of Frances once ambitious pandemic strategy, leaving the state largely powerless to protect its citizens from the coronavirus.
On March 17 of this year, the day France began a two-month nationwide lockdown, former health minister Agnès Buzyn spoke candidly about the extraordinary twist that had seen her plucked out of the ministry a month earlier, despite the worsening coronavirus outbreak, to lead President Emmanuel Macrons party in Paris mayoral elections.
“I knew the tsunami wave was coming for us,” she said, referring to the looming pandemic. “We should have stopped the elections, it was a travesty.”
Addressing senators two days later, Buzyns successor as health minister, Olivier Véran, summed up the bewildering haemorrhage of equipment that had left France so desperately exposed.
“In 2010, the state had a stock of one billion surgical masks,” he said. “When I took over at the ministry, there were 150 million.”
As he spoke, and in the months preceding the crisis, millions of masks were simply being torched, based on the assumption that they had expired or were ineffective.
According to French daily Libération, a Belgian company tasked with testing a sample of the masks had concluded that they no longer met certain standards. However, subsequent tests carried out on masks that were saved from the bonfire at the last minute showed that they were perfectly usable.
Officials interviewed by Le Monde suggested that contradictory messages on the utility of masks – with the government at one point arguing that they were of no use to the general public – had helped seal the fate of the discarded stock.
The result of this stunning fiasco has been amply documented: a desperate shortage of protection for even frontline workers, a frantic – and costly – race to fly in masks from China, and a belated effort to revive a national production capacity that was abandoned in recent years.
“Its baffling that nothing at all was anticipated, when we had it all ready as early as 2004,” a dejected Douste-Blazy told Le Monde, reflecting on Frances Covid-19 disaster.
He added: “This must be one of the most mind-blowing examples of how the French administration can produce such a plan and then fail to use it!”