French defense chief misled country about troop security against viruses


PARIS (AP) – France’s Defense Minister has admitted to misleading the country about antivirus protections for air force personnel who evacuated French citizens from the hard-hit Chinese city of Wuhan and were suspected of links with the first confirmed COVID-19 cluster in France. Defense Minister Florence Parly’s revelation on Tuesday to a Senate commission of inquiry is yet another blow to the credibility of the government of French President Emmanuel Macron as it battles rebounding infections.

Health Minister Olivier Veran is expected to announce new restrictions on gatherings on Wednesday as the number of virus cases and hospitalizations rise.

As China locked down the city of Wuhan in January, the French government launched repatriation flights for French citizens. One of these flights returned to France from Wuhan on January 31, operated by 18 soldiers based in Creil, in the Oise region north of Paris, said the Minister of Defense.

In February, regional health authorities announced a cluster of viruses in the Oise region, and the first cases in France with no clear link to cases in China or Italy. Within weeks, the number of coronavirus cases in France had skyrocketed and the country was on lockdown.

With more than 31,400 confirmed deaths linked to the virus, France has the third highest death toll in Europe after Britain and Italy. France now reports around 10,000 new infections per day.

The Minister of Defense told public broadcaster France-2 in March that all military personnel on the evacuation flight “had been tested and contained” upon their return. But as both chambers of the French parliament investigated the government’s handling of the pandemic, doubts were raised about this version of events.

A senator from the Oise, Olivier Paccaud, insisted on Parly on what exactly happened with the soldiers in Creil during a hearing on Tuesday.

“Do you maintain that these personnel have been tested and confined? Was there not some negligence in the way the soldiers were treated upon their return from Wuhan? He asked. “The inhabitants of Oise want the truth.

Parly replied: “I said something incorrect on March 4 on France-2. ”

“The crew was under an extremely strict health protocol, but which, in fact, did not involve testing,” she said.

She said there was “probably no” chance that the air base was responsible for the Oise cluster, noting that regional health authorities later discovered a possible case dated January 14, two weeks before the evacuation flight. She insisted that Air Force personnel did not stay in Wuhan and have no direct contact with the evacuated passengers.

Health officials said the virus was probably circulating widely in France earlier than authorities realized, due to limited testing and knowledge about COVID-19 earlier this year.


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