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Coronavirus: What are the rules on wearing face masks in France?

Coronavirus: What are the rules on wearing face masks in France?
French President Emmanuel Macron. Photo: AFP
The official advice on wearing face masks has shifted rather confusingly in France since the start of the coronavirus epidemic - so what are the current guidelines?

When president Emmanuel Macron announced that masks would be central to the next stage of lockdown, it came as a surprise to many who were still following the government's earlier advice that only the sick need to wear masks.

READ ALSO This is how France plans to lift the lockdown

Against a backdrop of shifting advice and confusing local restrictions, we take a look at the current situation in France.

What is the French government advice?

This has changed as the epidemic developed, and as scientific knowledge has increased alongside it.

At the beginning of the epidemic the French government's advice was very clear – only people already infected, their carers or health workers need to wear surgical face masks, for everyone else they were useless.

The government was following advice from the World Health Organisation which stated that fabric masks would not protect people from the droplet infection that transmits the virus.

But as more evidence has emerged about asymptomatic carriers – who are not ill but can nonetheless spread the virus – advice has shifted.

France's Director General of Health Jérôme Salomon later said: “We encourage the general public, if they so wish, to wear (…) these alternative masks which are being produced.”

The French medical association also advises everybody to wear a mask.

This is a stark contrast to the original messaging, which not only told people not to wear masks, but made them available by prescription only.

So are they compulsory?

Not yet. At present there is only advice to wear one, but that could change from May 11th onwards.

This is the date when France will begin – gradually – to loosen its lockdown restrictions, and masks will play a big part in that. 

With more and more people out and about, Macron said he wanted wearing a mask “to become the new normal” especially on public transport.

SNCF Jean-Pierre Farandou has already suggested that wearing masks will have to be compulsory on trains in the short-term future, given the proximity of passengers.

He said: “If they make us impose distances of 1 to 1.5 metres between each passenger, even with 100 percent of trains operating, we would only be able to carry 20 percent of the number we normally carry. So it won’t work.”

His call was backed by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and the head of the RATP Paris public transport network, who said that social distancing on the Metro would not be possible.

However the government is yet to make a decision on whether they will be compulsory on all public transport.

Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer added that there was a “strong possibility” that masks will become compulsory in the classroom once schools reopen. But Health Minister Olivier Véran has said “it would be very difficult” getting children of school age to wear a mask continuously throughout the day.

Several local mayors have spoken about making masks obligatory, although again they were speaking of when lockdown is lifted.

The only local authority that tried to make masks compulsory now – Sceaux in the greater Paris region – withdrew the proposal after a court challenge.

So how do you get a mask?

Masks have been in short supply after the government requisitioned stocks at the beginning of the outbreak to make sure they got to the people who needed them most.

From April 25th, pharmacies are again allowed to sell them over the counter, after being initially restricted to selling them on a prescription-only basis. Per today, about half of the country's pharmacies have obtained stocks of masks that they are now selling.

The country's Junior Economy Minister says that mass distribution to the population will begin from May 4th, although the method of distribution has not yet been agreed – with local authorities, pharmacies and tabacs all considered as possibilities.

Some local authorities – including in Cannes and Nice – have begun a more widespread distribution.

Due to the shortages many people have begun making their own, although health minister Véran says that many home-made masks are “useless” as they do not conform to technical specifications.

Authorities also worry that wearing masks and gloves gives people a false sense of security and they neglect more important hygiene precautions such as hand washing.

 


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