Coronavirus: Face masks can now be bought at French pharmacies

Masks can now be sold to the general public in pharmacies in France, following a government order.

Coronavirus: Face masks can now be bought at French pharmacies
Photo: AFP

At the beginning of the outbreak, worried about shortages and hoarding, the French government requisitioned all the country's supply of masks.

They were distributed to healthcare workers but for the general public a prescription was needed in order to buy one at a pharmacy.

Now, as production is stepped up and public health bodies advise that people should be wearing masks for trips outside the home, the government has allowed their over-the-counter sale again.

The decree published in the Journel Officiel on Saturday says that pharmacists are now allowed to sell washable fabric masks.

Many pharmacies ran out of masks early in the outbreak. Photo: AFP

The health ministry added that the basic mask will cost between €2 and €5.

However the masks remain in short supply in most areas.

“The pharmacies will now be able to order non-specialist masks, manufactured according to an industrial process and meeting the applicable technical specifications. 

“So there is no point in going to pharmacies on Monday to buy masks,” Philippe Besset, president of the Federation of Pharmaceutical Unions of France (FSPF), told BFMTV.

At present wearing a mask is only advised, but when the lockdown starts to be loosening on May 11th, it looks likely that they will be made compulsory in some areas, including on public transport.

The Prime Minister will set out on Tuesday morning details about the ending of the lockdown.

The country's Junior Economy Minister says that widespread distribution of masks to the population will start from May 4th, although some local authorities in areas including Nice and Cannes have already begun handing them out.

In the meantime many people have resorted to making their own masks, although health minister Oliver Véran said that many home-made masks were “useless” as they did not meet technical specifications.

Over the weekend French police seized 140,000 face masks intended for the black market in a record haul since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Two individuals were arrested while they were unloading boxes in Saint-Denis, just north of Paris, a police source said on Sunday.

One of them said he was a business owner and had bought the masks, including 5,000 high protection FFP2 masks, in the Netherlands for a total of €80,000.

The masks were to be sold to construction workers for a large profit, according to police.




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Carte vitale: France to adopt a new ‘biometric’ health card

The French parliament has approved a €20 million project to launch a 'biometric' version of the carte vitale health insurance card.

Carte vitale: France to adopt a new 'biometric' health card

As part of the French government’s package of financial aid for the cost-of-living crisis, €20 million will be set set aside to launch a biometric health card, after an amendment proposed by senators was approved.

Right-wing senators made this measure a “condition” of their support for the financial aid package, according to French left-wing daily Libération, and on Thursday the measure was approved by the Assemblée nationale.

While it sounds quite high tech, the idea is relatively simple, according to centre-right MP Thibault Bazin: the carte vitale would be equipped with a chip that “contains physical characteristics of the insured, such as their fingerprints” which would allow healthcare providers to identify them.

The carte vitale is the card that allows anyone registered in the French health system to be reimbursed for medical costs such as doctor’s appointments, medical procedures and prescriptions. The card is linked to the patient’s bank account so that costs are reimbursed directly into the bank account, usually within a couple of days.

READ ALSO How a carte vitale works and how to get one

According to the centre-right Les Républicains group, the reason for having a ‘biometric’ carte vitale is to fight against welfare fraud.

They say this would have two functions; firstly the biometric data would ensure the card could only be used by the holder, and secondly the chip would allow for instant deactivation if the card was lost of stolen.

Support for the biometric carte vitale has mostly been concentrated with right-wing representatives, however, opponants say that the implementation of the tool would be costly and lengthy.

It would involve replacing at least 65 million cards across France and repurposing them with biometric chips, in addition to taking fingerprints for all people concerned.

Additionally, all healthcare professionals would have to join the new system and be equipped with devices capable of reading fingerprints. 

Left-leaning representatives have also voiced concerns regarding the protection of personal data and whether plans would comply with European regulations for protecting personal data, as the creation of ‘biometric’ carte vitales would inevitably lead to the creation of a centralised biometric database. Additionally, there are concerns regarding whether this sensitive personal information could be exposed to cybercrime, as the health insurance system in France has been targeted by hackers in the past.

Finally, there is concern that the amount of financial loss represented by carte vitale fraud has been overestimated. The true figures are difficult to establish, but fraud related to carte vitale use is only a small part of general welfare fraud, which also covers unemployment benefits and other government subsidy schemes.

The scheme is set to begin in the autumn, but there us no information on how this will be done, and whether the biometric chip will just be added to new cards, or whether existing cards will be replaced with new ones.