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France could have sold masks much earlier than thought

Pharmacies in France were legally permitted to sell masks to the general public much earlier than thought, it has emerged, with the government accused by some of “lying to pharmacists”.

Pharmacies recently began stocking reusable, fabric masks for general sale after it appeared that the government had made a U-turn on the law.

Previously, it was widely thought there had been a total ban on the sale of any masks to the public.

Read more: Pharmacies in France will now sell face masks

Pharmacists that broke the law on mask sales risked a fine of up to €10,000 and up to six months in prison. On March 17, government spokesperson Sibeth N’diaye said: “No, the French public cannot go to buy masks in pharmacies.”

Similarly, on April 19, health minister Olivier Véran said: “If we start to allow sales through pharmacies, stocks will quickly dry up.”

Any masks were, it was thought, only allowed to be given or sold to healthcare staff and frontline workers.

Since then, the law has changed, and pharmacies and supermarkets have now begun to sell masks to the general public too.

But it has since emerged that pharmacies were in fact legally permitted to sell imported masks since the end of March, yet the government did not make this clear, and appeared to suggest that the law applied to all masks, regardless of origin. 

A document from April 30 includes a sentence that reads: “Stocks of masks imported since March 23 are not covered [by the March 23 ban on sales].”

The document means that since the end of March, pharmacies were allowed to buy and sell imported masks, up to a limit of five million per trimester and per business. High court le Conseil d’Etat confirmed this on May 5. 

This is in contrast to what pharmacists believed.

One pharmacist, Saïd Sediame, told news service FranceInfo: “I was convinced that I wasn’t allowed to sell [any masks at all]. Each time a customer came in to ask me, ‘Please, just give me one mask’, I told them I could not.” 

Lawyer Me Fabrice Di Vizio, who is representing some affected parties, said: “There are a lot of pharmacists who have suddenly found out they have been lied to since March 24. In the end, it is still the patients; still the public, who have been deprived of the masks they so desperately needed.”

According to the information site Reflets, many thousands of pharmacists did not order any masks for sale, for fear of breaking the law, at a time when the epidemic was at full peak.

Audrey Lecoq, manager of medical equipment wholesaler Pharmazon, told FranceInfo that despite having one million masks available for sale - which had been imported from Spain and Portugal, and were therefore legal - she was not able to persuade her pharmacists customers to buy them from her.

She said: “I showed them the decree. I showed them a meeting with my lawyer, who said: ‘You have the right to sell [imported] masks’, but we were advised by [pharmacist association union] l’Ordre [des Pharmaciens], who were telling pharmacists: ‘The order is to give priority to carers, and to not sell [any] masks’.”

President of l’Ordre des Pharmaciens, Carine Wolf-Thal, defended the advice. 

She said: “We followed the advice from the health ministry, although that is admittedly not legally-binding. We therefore asked pharmacists to not sell surgical masks, to prioritise them for health professionals.”

However, it has since emerged that imported masks were not counted as part of the State’s mask stock totals that were intended for healthcare staff and frontline workers.

When contacted by FranceInfo about the allegations, the ministry for health had not responded to questions at the time of writing.

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