Agnès Buzyn: Ex-health minister defends France’s early coronavirus response

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Former French health minister Agnès Buzyn responded to questions from a parliamentary investigatory committee over her actions earlier this year to prepare France for the coronavirus crisis.

Rejecting the suggestion that the health ministry was “slow” to respond, Buzyn defended her January actions, stating that she had prepared the country as best she could.

“I never underestimated the risk, and I prepared our health system,” said Buzyn who was health minister in France from 2017 to 2020.

She said her “alert level went up a notch on January 24” when cases were confirmed in France and she called the EU health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, to ask for a meeting of European health ministers.

She said she began preparing the health system before an international alert was issued. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health emergency on January 30.

Buzyn left her post in mid-February just before the coronavirus crisis became critical in Europe in order to run for Paris mayor. She said when she was in charge there was no “circulation of the virus”.

She described the political situation at that time as “special” with Macron’s ruling party not having a candidate for the mayoral race; the previous candidate Benjamin Griveaux had to quit the race after sex videos emerged online.

She has been criticised for having said in January that the chances of an epidemic arriving in France were low.

When she left the health ministry there were 12 confirmed cases in France, she said, but after the first round of local elections in March, she was quoted in Le Monde as saying that “we should have stopped everything, it was a masquerade. The last week has been a nightmare. I was scared at every [campaign]meeting”.

Buzyn defended her response to the coronavirus crisis in front of a parliamentary committee on Tuesday days after defeat in Paris’ mayoral race, coming in third place behind the socialist incumbent and Republican candidate.

She was questioned over a depleted national stock of masks, after health officials got rid of hundreds of millions of expired masks in 2018, leaving France with a much smaller stock, according to national media.

The former minister said she had asked for an analysis of stocks and for “three scenarios for the evolution of the epidemic” from the public health agency in January and said it was the public health agency’s job to assess the stocks.

“The minister does not have to know all of the products in stock,” she said.

“You cannot say that we were not reactive,” Buzyn insisted, adding that she understood the potential seriousness of the epidemic from January 22 once it was known the coronavirus could be transmitted from one human being to another.

But she also said that testing more people was not as large a priority in January and February because there was no known community transmission in Europe.

In March, France’s testing capacity was at just 2,500 per day compared to 100,000 per day after lockdown.

She said before leaving the post she had asked to downgrade the type of laboratory qualified to do the COVID-19 test so that more tests could be carried out.

France has had more than 29,000 deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is the fourth most impacted country in the EU.

Many people in France have questioned the government’s handling of the crisis and in early June the Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into the country’s management of the crisis.

Several experts will also continue to testify before France’s National Assembly and Senate over the country’s response to the crisis.

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