French hospital workers strike over ‘disastrous’ staff shortages

Unions have denounced a ‘desperately ill-treated’ hospital system which could soon result in unnecessary deaths

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Hospital workers around France are striking today (June 7) over staff shortages, warning that they will soon have to “count the deaths” caused by the current lack of resources if nothing is done.

The strike action was called by nine unions, including the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), SUD trade union group and professional employee union CFE-CGC, as well as collectives such as Inter-Hôpitaux and Inter-Urgences.

These organisations have criticised a “desperately ill-treated” hospital system, adding that “access to primary care is becoming more and more difficult and hospitals are no longer fulfilling their public role as a last resort”.

At least 120 hospital services in 60 departments have already or are preparing to limit their services because of these staff shortages, a Samu-Urgences report has said.

Read more: Sarlat, Jonzac: Hospitals in France where situation is ‘very worrying’

Protests are planned in at least 50 French towns today according to CGT. In Paris, a demonstration will begin at 13:30 outside the health ministry, and there will also be gatherings in cities including Grenoble, Nantes, Marseille and Toulouse.

Unions have not yet reported how many healthcare workers are expected to strike today.

‘An emergency strategy’

Today’s strike comes after President Emmanuel Macron announced on May 31 the launch of an “emergency strategy” aimed at “providing strong responses” to the issue of understaffing.

François Braun, the president of the Samu-Urgences de France union, has been put in charge of developing this plan, and will present a report on July 1 at the latest, explaining where the shortages are being felt most keenly in different areas of the country.

“We are going to look hospital by hospital at the difficulties being observed: staff fatigue, recurring sick leave, an inability to recruit [new employees…] to create an exhaustive map by the beginning of the summer,” the president said.

On that same day, France’s leading gynaecologist union warned that the lack of doctors had “reached a critical level” in maternity units, which were at risk of “unexpected summer closures”.

President Macron’s plan has been criticised by opponents, with the CGT’s Dr Christophe Prudhomme describing it as a “strategy for pushing back decisions to after the legislative elections” on June 12 and June 19, even though the health system is already “in a disastrous situation”.

Would reintroducing unvaccinated hospital staff make a difference?

To help alleviate the pressure on hospital staff, the CGT has demanded that the government reintroduce unvaccinated medical and care professionals into the workforce.

These workers – along with other professions – have since September 15 been obliged to be fully vaccinated against Covid in order to continue doing their job.

Those who refuse to be vaccinated accounted for about 16,000 employees, or 0.6% of the workforce, in early October. However, by October 20, the government stated that there were only 7,930 suspended workers, because over half had received their vaccinations since the obligation came into force.

On April 12, during his reelection campaign, President Macron suggested that unvaccinated health professionals may be allowed to reenter the system if Covid transmission levels remained low.

However, on May 31, he stated that lifting compulsory vaccination rules “would absolutely not be a solution to the problem [with staff shortages] that we face today.”

Read more: Hospital shortages in France: Macron rules out unvaccinated workers

The then health minister, Olivier Véran, had told BFMTV that he was going to ask France’s health service quality regulator Haute Autorité de santé for its view on the matter, but it has since said that it has not been consulted.

Mr Véran’s successor, Brigitte Bourguignon, stated on May 25 that “compulsory vaccination will remain for as long as is necessary”.

Epidemiologist Emmanuel Rusch has told Franceinfo that vaccinated staff members do help to protect patients in that “data leads us to believe that their viral load is not necessarily the same, and neither is the length of the infection.”

However, “the antibodies created by vaccination wane quite quickly,” added École des hautes études en santé publique (EHESP) epidemiologist Pascal Crépey.

“Protection against infection becomes very limited after a few months,” and as healthcare professionals were required to have their booster dose in January, their immunity levels will now have declined.

“At the moment, reintegrating unvaccinated workers into the health system – or not – would not change the epidemic dynamic in France,” Prof Crépey added.

It is not known how many health workers are currently suspended because they are not vaccinated, but for the government and experts like Mr Rusch, there are not enough to make a difference to the current situation.

It is also unclear whether all of the suspended workers would want to return to the medical profession, as many will have found new jobs since compulsory vaccination was introduced.

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