French government steps in to regulate face masks and hand gels during coronavirus outbreak

The French government is taking extra action around the supply of surgical face masks and hand gels as hospitals report thefts of 10,000 masks amid coronavirus fears.

French government steps in to regulate face masks and hand gels during coronavirus outbreak
Pharmacies across France have been running out of face masks. All photos: AFP

Hôpitaux de Paris has reported the theft of 8,300 masks from its sites, as well as 1,200 bottles of hand sanitiser gel, while the Hôpital de la Conception in Marseille reported the theft of 2,000 masks.

Masks have become something of a hot topic since the coronavirus outbreak began, with the government announcing on Tuesday that it was stepping in to requisition stocks of masks to ensure they get to the people who need them.

Follow the latest updates on the situation in France here

The government's advice is that only people are are infected or who are self isolating need to wear masks.

The masks are intended only to stop people from passing on the infection, they do not prevent people from catching it and should not be worn by people who do not fit in to the above groups.

But the message does not seem to have been filtering through and many pharmacies and online stores have run out completely.

Ministers had been asking people who do not need a mask not to buy one, as this creates shortages for priority patients. However after this advice was ignored the government then stepped in to take direct control.

President Emmanuel Macron announced that the government would requisition all stocks and distribute them to people who need them.


The French government had already ordered large stocks of masks for health professionals.

The other thing affected by the outbreak is hand sanitiser gel – which many stores have sold out of while some customers have reported a massive hike in prices.

READ ALSO Coronavirus: The everyday precautions you can take to stay safe in France

Finance minister Bruno Le Maire announced on Wednesday that a decree would be passed capping the price of hand sanitisers to end this problem.

Official health advice is for people to wash their hands thoroughly and regularly, particularly before eating or after couching, sneezing or touching surfaces that many other people will have touched such as the Metro, elevator buttons and money.

The official health advice in France is;

  • Wash hands your thoroughly and often with soap and water, especially after coughing and sneezing or before eating or it you have been touching surfaces that many other people will have touched such as on the Metro
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, especially with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing. Cover your mouth with your elbow when coughing
  • Use disposable tissues and throw them away after use
  • Clean off surfaces with alcohol- or chlorine-based disinfectants.

The government advises that anyone recently returned from China (including Hong Kong and Macau), South Korea, Singapore, Iran or the Lombardy, Veneto or Emilia-Romagna regions of Italy should self isolate for 14 days

This means you should;

  • Monitor your temperature twice a day
  • Watch for symptoms of respiratory infection (cough, difficulty breathing)
  • Wear a surgical mask when you are in front of another person and when you have to go out
  • Wash your hands regularly or use a sanitiser gel
  • Avoid any contact with vulnerable people (pregnant women, those with ongoing health problems, elderly people
  • Avoid frequenting places where vulnerable people are present (hospitals, maternity wards, old people's homes)
  • Avoid all non-essential outings (large gatherings, restaurants, cinema)
  • Workers/Students: as far as possible, choose home working and avoid close contact (meetings, lifts, canteen)
  • Children should not be sent to school or nursery

The French government also passed a decree on February 1st that states that anyone who is self isolating (or whose children cannot go to school because of coronavirus) is entitled to 20 days of paid sick leave.

READ ALSO Coronavirus in France: How worried should you be?


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Where in France are there concerns about pesticides in drinking water

An investigation has revealed that tap water supplied to some 12 million people in France was sometimes contaminated with high levels of pesticides last year.

Where in France are there concerns about pesticides in drinking water

Data from regional health agencies, and collated by Le Monde, found that supplies to about 20 percent of the population, up from 5.9 percent the year previously, failed to consistently meet regional quality standards. 

The study highlighted regional differences in tap water quality. Hauts-de-France water was the most likely to be affected, with 65 percent of the population there drinking water contaminated by unacceptable pesticide levels. In Brittany, that level fell to 43 percent; 25.5 percent in the Grand-Est, and 25 percent in the Pays de la Loire.

Occitanie, in southwest France, meanwhile, showed the lowest level of non-compliance with standards, with just 5.1 percent of the region’s population affected by high pesticide levels in their tap water. However, figures show that 71 percent of people in one département in the region, Gers, were supplied with water containing high levels of pesticides.

Regional discrepancies in testing, including what chemicals are tested for, mean that results and standards are not uniform across France. Tap water in Haute-Corse is tested for 24 pesticide molecules; in Hauts-de-Seine, that figure rises to 477. 

One reason for regional testing standards are differences in local agricultural requirements.

Part of the increase in the year-on-year number of households supplied with affected water may also be explained by the fact that tests in many regions now seek to trace more molecules, Le Monde noted.

Water quality standards in France are strict – with a limit for pesticide residues set at 0.1 microgramme per litre, so the “high” levels found in tap water supplies may not represent a danger to health.

The question of the level of health risk to humans, therefore, remains unclear. The Agence nationale de sécurité sanitaire de l’alimentation, de l’environnement et du travail (Anses) has not defined a maximum safety level for 23 pesticides or their metabolites. Le Monde cites two metabolites of chloridazone, a herbicide used until 2020 on beet fields, for which only provisional safety levels in tap water have been set. 

Many of these molecules and their long-term effects remain unknown – and “the long-term health effects of exposure to low doses of pesticides are difficult to assess,” admits the Ministry of Health.

Michel Laforcade, former director general of the ARS Nouvelle-Aquitaine told Le Monde that health authorities have “failed” on this subject. 

“One day, we will have to give an account,” he said. “It may not be on the same scale as the contaminated blood affair, but it could become the next public health scandal.”

In December 2020, the Direction générale de la santé (DGS) recommended “restricting uses of water” as soon as the 0.1 micrograms per litre quality threshold is exceeded, in cases of residues for which there is no formal maximum health value.

But this principle is not always applied, according to France 2’s Complètement d’enquête programme.

In December 2021, the DGS asked the Haut conseil de la santé publique (HCSP) “for support on the management of health risks associated with the presence of pesticides and pesticide metabolites in water intended for human consumption.”

The HCSP, in response, said that “an active and urgent policy must be implemented to reduce the contamination of resources by pesticides”.