Current laws state that the general public cannot buy a mask of any kind from pharmacies in France, even on prescription.
Pharmacists risk six months in prison or fines of up to €10,000 if they are found to be selling masks to the general public.
Some, including one pharmacist in Annecy (Haute-Savoie, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes) and another in Lyon (Rhône, also Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes), have already been arrested - on March 20 and 21 respectively - for “the illicit selling of masks”, and the alleged illegal re-selling of masks at high prices.
Read more: Covid-19 France: Theft and illegal sale of masks soar
The rules are to ensure that all available masks in the country go to health professionals.
The ministry for health explains on its website: “To preserve the stocks of protective masks in the fight against Covid-19, the Prime Minister requisitioned, by decree, all stocks and production of masks across the country.”
This decree will remain in place until at least May 31, 2020. It applies to both surgical masks and FFP2 masks (the standard of protection needed by medical workers).
Currently, masks are only available to healthcare workers or those caring on the frontline. They are sent free-of-charge by the State. Doctors are sent 18 per week, while midwives and physiotherapists - for example - receive six each per week.
Pharmacists must currently fill in forms allowing the masks they receive and send to be traced, including the professional details of the people who received them, to ensure that they fit the criteria.
They are not permitted to sell masks to any member of the public who does not qualify under these conditions.
Health minister Olivier Véran has previously said that France currently has 110 million masks available, and said that at the end of March, France had ordered “more than a billion” masks from China.
What about alternative masks?
Yet, on April 6, a group of pharmacists published a press release asking for the right to sell “alternative” masks to the public. These would be non-surgical standard, and made out of fabric or similar.
Currently, even these kinds of masks are not allowed to be sold, as they are not listed as an authorised pharmaceutical product.
In the release, the pharmacists called for the right to sell PPP1-standard masks, which are the “hard shell type, normally sold at DIY shops”.
These types of masks offer a moderate amount of respiratory protection, which pharmacists say means they could technically be sold as a health product, without taking proper medical supplies away from those who need them most.
They said: “These masks have no medical purpose so should not be used in this context.”
These masks could, however, offer a small amount of extra protection against Covid-19 when used by the general public, they said.
The call comes as a video of a French pharmacist, Bruno Fellous, complaining about the current rules in an interview with CNews, went viral. The video has now been viewed more than a million times.
He said: “Let pharmacists help during this crisis! We have been brushed to the side [even though] we are capable of equipping the population [with adequate masks].
“Right now, pharmacists are not allowed to sell masks. We just have what the State sends us, three to four boxes every 10 days.”
He said that pharmacists would be well-placed to sell masks to the public, as they have networks that would allow them to acquire more masks and distribute them safely.
Yet, in his national address on Monday April 13, President Emmanuel Macron hinted that he was considering methods to help ensure everyone is able to access an “alternative” mask, especially by the time confinement starts to be lifted on May 11.
He said: “I am liaising with mayors [to allow] each French person to get hold of a mask.”
Carine Wolf-Thal, president of the national pharmacist group l’Ordre National des Pharmaciens, said that selling masks would also allow pharmacists to issue important advice about their use.
She said: “We want to be able to distribute masks that satisfy national French standards. That way, we will be able to explain to the population directly that these alternative masks do not replace barrier methods or social distancing methods.”
Ms Wolf-Thal added: “The authorities must make a clear decision on the policy of wearing masks. Once this is clear, pharmacists can help enforce the measure. But as long as there is not a clear policy, I do not want them to be sold.”
Currently, there is no national policy on the wearing of masks, either for people leaving their home during confinement, or once confinement is over, although some medical experts have recommended that they be made mandatory.
Read more: Covid-19 in France: Public may be asked to wear masks
Some companies and towns have also begun to introduce the measure themselves.
This week, the CEO of train company SNCF said that he would make it a requirement for passengers to wear masks after confinement is lifted, while the city of Nice (Alpes-Maritimes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur) has made it obligatory for residents to wear a cloth mask if they leave their house.
Mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi said: “All residents are soon going to receive a mask that will be reusable for a month.”
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