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Covid-19 in France: Public may be asked to wear masks

The French government has suggested that it could soon be recommended to wear a face mask in public as part of ongoing measures to fight Covid-19, after having repeatedly said it was “not necessary”.

On Saturday April 4, director general of health Jérôme Salomon hinted at the change during his daily press update, but stopped short of recommending masks.

He said: “Everyday we are learning more about this new virus. Maybe one day we will suggest that everyone wears [a mask] for protection. But we are not there yet. We are discussing all this with experts. We are adapting our position.”

This came after his statement the day before, on April 3. He said: “We encourage the wider public, if they wish, to wear masks.”

Medical institution l’Académie Nationale de Médecine (ANM) has previously said that people should wear face masks in public as an added means of protection against the virus, in addition to all the other safety advice.

In a statement, the ANM advised: “It is necessary to use an ‘alternative’ mask when breaking containment. It has been established that people in the incubation period or who are asymptomatic spread the virus and heighten the spread of infection.

“Widespread wearing of a mask by the public is a logical addition to barrier methods already in place.”

The ANM referred to an “alternative” mask, in reference to the fact that there is a shortage of official masks (such as surgical masks or FFP2), as these are reserved for healthcare workers and frontline staff.

An “alternative” mask therefore means one that is legally available, such as a homemade variety, or a type that is not legally reserved for healthcare workers.

Read more: French hospital shares homemade mask instructions

Read more: Covid-19: Mixed medical opinion on home-made masks
Health minister Olivier Véran said this was not a “U-turn” in policy, but a “reevaluation of advice”, despite last week having said that there was no evidence that wearing masks was useful.

He said: “People have widely criticised us on this, but allow me to cite Dr Mike Ryan, who is the emergency executive director of the WHO (World Health Organisation). On March 30, he said that there is no proof that widespread wearing of masks by the public would be beneficial.”

So far, the government policy on masks has remained constant.

Since the beginning of the crisis, then-health minister Agnès Buzyn said the same; while on March 20, government spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye told news source BMFTV: “Masks are not necessary for everyone. And do you know what, I do not know how to wear a mask [properly].”

She added: “You have to do it properly, otherwise it can even be counter-productive.”

Several European countries have already made it compulsory to wear a mask when going out in public, and on Friday last week, the US advised all Americans to cover their faces when leaving the house.

But in France, reports suggest that the government has held off from recommending the measure to the general public due to the severe lack of suitable masks in pharmacies and hospitals, and has instead wanted to prioritise stocks for those who need them most.

The government has since worked to import more than two billion healthcare-grads masks, and to boost national production to supply healthcare and other frontline professions.

Two new categories of “alternative masks” are set to be made, which will be given first to “second line” staff, such as police officers, gendarmerie, and workers at essential shops.

Professor Salomon has been careful to state that “alternative masks can be a complementary [measure], but must not cause a sense of false security” and cause people to disregard other safety advice, such as staying indoors, washing hands, not touching your face, staying two metres away from others, and coughing into your elbow rather than your hands.

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