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We made an error on Covid masks, says France’s former health minister

Olivier Véran has discussed the behind-the-scenes details of the government’s Covid response as he publishes a book, saying it is ‘an opportunity to apologise’

Former Health Minister Olivier Véran has written a book about his experience of the Covid pandemic Pic: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock

The French government “was wrong” with regards to its facemask policy at the beginning of the Covid pandemic in March 2020, the former health minister has said in a new book. 

Olivier Véran has said that his book Par-delà les vagues (Beyond the Waves) – published this week – is an “opportunity to apologise” for errors made in France’s handling of coronavirus. 

Mr Véran is now the government’s official spokesperson, but was health minister from February 2020 until this May.

As the first Covid wave began to pick up pace in March 2020, the government and its health authorities decided that extending mask-wearing measures to the whole population would be “useless” in preventing virus spread. 

The then-Prime Minister Édouard Philippe had also said: “Wearing a mask is pointless within the population on the street. And it is inconvenient: it takes masks from those who really need them.” 

At the same time, France was experiencing a mask shortage, with stocks having dropped from nearly two billion units (including both surgical and FFP2 masks) in 2009 to 100 million just before the pandemic began. 

“A section of public opinion reproached us saying we knowingly lied about masks to hide the shortage,” Mr Véran said, adding that “this was not the case,” during an interview with Le Parisien yesterday (September 7).

“The truth was that on masks, we were wrong, that’s all there is to it. Us, the World Health Organisation, international health authorities. In good faith of course, but we were wrong.”

He added that some of the government’s Covid measures could have appeared “absurd” to the public. 

“For example, when we opened restaurant terraces requiring flower pots or plexiglass panels to separate tables. 

“But I also observed that some neighbouring [countries] who labelled us ‘Absurdistan’ then followed our lead in the majority of cases.”

‘Burnout’

Mr Véran also said that on the evening that France’s first Covid lockdown was announced, he wrote down his feelings to “remember the emotion of the moment later on”, without imagining how serious or lasting the crisis would become.

He also talked about his experience of burnout, saying that by the end of the first Covid wave “I was dizzy, really nauseous”, that he was sleeping “for three hours each night”, skipping meals and under a “permanent stress”.

Mr Véran said he needed “authorisation” from President Emmanuel Macron before beginning to write his book, but added: “Even if the story relates the collective work done by a team of which I was a part and of which the president is the leader, this book is very personal.”

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