PARIS (AP) — France’s defense minister admitted to misleading the nation about virus protections for air force personnel who evacuated French citizens from the Chinese city of Wuhan last winter, and have been suspected of links to France’s first confirmed COVID-19 cluster.
The revelation by Defense Minister Florence Parly to a Senate investigating committee is a further blow to the credibility of French President Emmanuel Macron's centrist government as it battles rebounding infections.
With more than 10% of France's intensive care units again occupied with COVID-19 patients and cases rising fast among the elderly, the health minister announced the closure of all restaurants, bars and public places in the hard-hit Marseille region and restrictions on gatherings in a dozen other cities. The French military announced Wednesday it is deploying medical teams and equipment to the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe to relieve hospital strain.
Health Minister Olivier Veran stopped short of imposing new lockdowns, stressing the government's mantra that the French need to learn to live with the virus. “We are doing everything not to go towards lockdown,” he said. But he urged people to resume working from home and stop gathering with groups of family and friends.
In “enhanced alert zones,” which include Paris as well as other big French cities such as Bordeaux, Lyon and Nice, he said starting Monday meetings in public spaces would be limited to 10 people and bars would have to close at 10 p.m.
With over 31,400 confirmed virus-related deaths, France has the third-highest death toll in Europe after Britain and Italy. France is now reporting about 10,000 new infections a day, and both houses of parliament are investigating the government's handling of the pandemic.
As China locked down the city of Wuhan in January, the French government started repatriation flights for French citizens there. One such flight returned to France from Wuhan on Jan. 31, operated by 18 military personnel based in Creil, in the Oise region north of Paris, the defense minister said.
In February, regional health authorities announced a virus cluster in the Oise region and the first cases in France with no clear link to cases in China or Italy. Within weeks, France’s coronavirus case count had skyrocketed and the nation was in a lockdown.
The defense minister told public broadcaster France-2 in March that all the military personnel on that evacuation flight “had been tested and confined” upon return. But doubts have since been raised about that version of events.
A senator from the Oise region, Olivier Paccaud, pressed Parly during a hearing Tuesday about exactly what happened with the military personnel at Creil.
"Do you maintain that these personnel were tested and confined? Was there not negligence in the way the military personnel were handled on their return from Wuhan?” he asked. “The residents of the Oise want the truth.”
Parly responded: “I said something inexact March 4 on France-2.”
“The crew was subjected to an extremely strict health protocol, but which, in fact, did not include tests," she said.
She said there was “probably zero” chance that the air base was at fault for the Oise cluster, noting that regional health authorities later found a possible case that dated to Jan. 14, two weeks before the evacuation flight. She insisted that the air force personnel didn’t stay in Wuhan and had no direct contact with the evacuated passengers.
Health officials have said the virus was probably circulating widely in France earlier than authorities realized, because of limited testing and little knowledge about COVID-19 early in the year.
But Parly's admission drew new questions about whether the government misled or withheld information from the public as the virus spread the first time around - and whether to trust it as the virus strengthens again.
Veran warned Wednesday that at the current rate of spread, COVID-19 patients will fill 60% of the Paris region's intensive care units within a month. It's crucial, he said, "to break the contamination chain, the viral dynamic, before our healthcare system gets to the point of system overload.”