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France Covid-19: Cases top 5,000 as PM mask claim questioned

Claims by Prime Minister Castex that France is “well ahead” of other countries on giving free masks have been questioned, as he reiterated calls for public “responsibility” - and new Covid cases exceed 5,000.

Mr Castex was speaking to news source France Inter yesterday (Wednesday August 26). He said that France would not offer free masks to everyone despite their being mandatory in collèges and lycées, and all workplaces with more than one worker, from the Rentree (back to school).

Read more: France Covid-19: Prime Minister Castex lays out new measures

He said that France had already distributed millions of free masks to those in society who needed them most.

He said: “We have just distributed 50 million masks to three million families, representing nine million children...that is not negligible. There is no country in the world that has made all masks free…[but] France is well ahead of that being done by all our neighbouring countries.”

Disputed claims

But news service FranceInfo has fact-checked Mr Castex’s claim and found some inconsistencies.

Journalist Julien Neny found that while France is indeed ahead of Germany and the UK on distributing free masks (there, most people are required to buy or make their own), it is in fact on a more level footing - and in some cases, behind - the efforts of other European countries.

In Spain, six million disposable masks have been given out for free in front of transport stations, while in Austria, there is also a free mask programme, where free masks are being distributed in front of most supermarkets. Italy has also given out 11 million free masks, especially in schools.

In Belgium, pharmacies are giving out up to two fabric masks for free to each citizen, putting them ahead of France’s efforts.

‘A spirit of responsibility’

The figures come after Mr Castex called on the public to take on a “spirit of responsibility” by wearing a mask, and reminded people that they “are not invincible”.

He said that wearing a mask was “extremely useful”, even as he admitted that wearing them can be “a pain”, and said that “the state cannot do everything, everyone must be alert to the fight against the epidemic”.

Mr Castex also had words for the “anti-maskers”, who appear to be spreading through Europe, as seen in a recent protest in Germany.

He said: “If they believe themselves to be invincible, maybe they should think about others, to medical personnel...I call on them [to adopt] a spirit of responsibility.”

Read more: Covid-19: who are France’s anti-maskers?

‘Anti-masker’ rumour debunked

Mr Castex’s words come after a claim by an“anti-masker” was revealed to be fake this week.

A rumour - which appeared to have started in an “anti-mask” group on Facebook - said that France had now made it mandatory to wear a mask outside, including when walking in forests.

A photo showed two signs in French, pinned up by the entrance to a forest path, requiring users to wear masks before entering.

Users wrote: “A new dictatorship is coming in large strides” and “this is completely ridiculous”.

But the photo was actually taken in Belgium, not France; and was first posted on August 24 by a Brussels doctor, who confirmed that it was taken in the Soignes forest, several kilometres to the south west of the city.

In areas near Brussels - which uses the French language - wearing a mask has been mandatory in all outdoor spaces since mid-August.

Wearing a mask in open forest spaces is not required in France.

Masks are mandatory in certain open public areas, especially in large cities such as Paris, Lyon, and Marseille, and especially in zones where physical distancing is impossible.

Read more: Paris and Marseille now ‘active’ Covid-19 circulation zones

Cases continuing to rise...but deaths still low. Why?

Mr Castex’s calls for responsibility come as cases of Covid continue to rise sharply in France.

Figures from health agency Santé Publique France (SPF) for Wednesday August 26 showed 5,429 new confirmed cases in the previous 24 hours.

This is the highest number recorded since mid-April, and marks a 60% rise compared to figures from Tuesday this week. The threshold of 4,000 cases per 24 hours has been breached several times in recent days.

Yet, while high levels of new cases are being recorded, comparatively few people are in intensive care, and there have been even fewer deaths that one might expect - when compared to the peak of the epidemic.

(Graph: Le Monde)

Mircea Sofonea, senior lecturer in Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases at the University of Montpellier, has calculated that the mortality rate of Covid was 46% lower at the end of July compared to the month of May.

Some had suggested that a new, less-deadly strain of the virus could be spreading, or that the virus could be weakening over time - especially as a new mutation was found in Malaysia in mid-August.

But Dr. Karine Lacombe, head of the infectious diseases service at the Saint-Antoine hospital in Paris, has warned against this hypothesis. She told news source France Inter: “The story that the virus might be less contagious or less serious is completely made up. We don’t know anything about that for the moment.”

More likely is the hypothesis that the results are due to more testing than seen in the first months of the epidemic. This means that more positive cases are being recorded, but similar numbers overall are dying, in real terms.

Read more: Covid France: Why cases are up but hospitalisations stable

At the start of the epidemic, France was only testing people with severe cases, so those with mild symptoms or no symptoms were not being counted in the figures. Now many more people are being tested, meaning a higher level of positive tests.

At the peak of the epidemic, there were around 7,000 new cases recorded per day, with around 20,000 daily tests. Compare this to 5,000 new cases per day now, from a far-higher 90,000 daily test number.

So even though figures appear high, they are likely to be lower in real terms than in April - even as the number of positive cases is outpacing the rise in tests.

Other hypotheses have suggested that more young people are becoming infected - especially due to the holiday and summer season - leading to more positive cases, but fewer proportional deaths, as young people are less at risk of dying from Covid-19.

Ségolène Aymé, emeritus director of research at national research centre Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (Inserm), told newspaper Le Monde: “The virus is probably circulating at a high level, but now among younger age groups: that's why there are relatively few serious cases. Those most at risk, especially older people, are better protected.”

Dr Aymé also said that hospitals had “made progress” in terms of caring for Covid-19 patients - especially when it comes to the severe cases - which could also be a factor in the lower mortality rate, but she warned: “We can’t measure this precisely for the moment.”

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