PARIS (Reuters) – The French public will be provided millions of washable face masks from early May, the government said on Friday amid a row over its flip-flopping on the value of masks in protecting against coronavirus infection.
Junior Finance Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher told financial daily Les Echos that domestic and international plants produced more than 10 million textile masks last week and that output should reach 25 million a week by the end of April.
Until the scheduled end of France’s lockdown period on May 11, these masks will be sold to companies and municipalities, but from May 4 they will also be sold to the public, probably via pharmacies, supermarkets, newspaper shops and online.
“The state will help provide masks to the public as soon as possible via the most suitable distribution channels,” Pannier-Runacher said.
The French government has been criticised by medical specialists and opposition politicians for repeatedly shifting position on whether, when and where citizens should wear masks in public to limit the contagion of the highly infections virus.
In a video call with French mayors on Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron indicated that mask wearing for the public would only be recommended and probably made mandatory in public transport once the lockdown is lifted.
On Wednesday the National Medical Academy said all French people should wear masks, even home-made ones, as soon as they leave home as it was the only known way to stem contagion.
It said that waiting for May 11 to make masks mandatory would mean thousands of new infections and dozens of deaths.
But in an interview with France Inter radio on Friday, Health Minister Olivier Veran did not endorse the Academy’s call, saying only that the government was preparing the French people to wear textile masks.
He said reusable masks would filter out 70-90% of particles and cost 2 to 5 euros apiece.
“They take a while to make but they offer security. I prefer that to telling French people to put a scarf around their nose or make a mask from a T-shirt,” he said.
French pharmacies’ stock of face masks ran out in February and only medical personnel can now buy small quantities.
Veran on March 28 said France was using 40 million face masks a week and had only three weeks worth of supplies. He also said the government had ordered more than one billion disposable masks from China, but a month later masks are still not available in the shops.
Pannier-Runacher said France expected a delivery of 100 million disposable masks this week.
France has recorded 158,387 infections and 21,856 deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus. France’s death toll is the world’s fourth highest from the pandemic that surfaced in China in December.
(Reporting by Geert De Clercq and Henri-Pierre André; Writing by Geert De Clercq)