An investigation by French daily Le Monde has uncovered the extraordinary chain of events that led successive French governments to build an ambitious pandemic response strategy and then dismantle it almost entirely, leaving the country dangerously exposed to the Covid-19 disease.
In late 2004, the cardiologist-turned-politician Philippe Douste-Blazy, then Frances health minister, unveiled a pandemic response plan at a cabinet meeting before an audience of puzzled, distracted and somewhat amused ministerial colleagues.
The plan detailed a host of drastic measures to be implemented in the event of an epidemic threatening France. They included the closure of national borders, limits on peoples movement, a ban on gatherings, sports and cultural events, the implementation of social distancing rules, and the nationwide distribution of masks – surgical, for the public, and the more protective FFP2 type, for health workers.
“In a nutshell, the plan contained everything the current French government scrambled to put in place, in a hurry and without the equipment, in mid-March 2020,” write journalists Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme in a lengthy, five-part reconstruction of Frances pandemic “disarmament”, published by Le Monde this week.
The extraordinary rise and fall of pandemic planning in France was rooted in the troubled dawn of the new century, when Western nations obsessed with the threat of terrorism, and the hunt for elusive weapons of mass destruction, suddenly woke up to the risk of deadly epidemics.