France’s former health minister who downplayed the risk of Covid-19 spreading weeks before it began to ravage the country arrived at a Paris court today as she faces charges over incompetence.
Agnes Buzyn said in January last year that the ‘risk of a spread of the coronavirus among the population is very small’. As of Friday, France has seen 115,941 Covid deaths, and has reported over 6.9 million cases.
Now, Buzyn could face charges over her handling of the Covid crisis after being summoned to appear in court.
Agnes Buzyn (pictured arriving outside Paris’ Court of Justice on Friday) said in January last year that the ‘risk of a spread of the coronavirus among the population is very small’
Buzyn, who resigned from her post in February last year weeks after the first Covid cases were confirmed in France, will be grilled on Friday over her role in the widely criticised initial response to the pandemic.
The hearing at a court specialising in ministerial misconduct is part of an investigation launched in July 2020 into the government’s handling of the health emergency.
The judges of the Cour de Justice de La Republique are considering charging Buzyn with ‘voluntary abstaining from fighting a disaster’ and ‘putting the lives of others at risk’, said French newspaper Le Monde, citing sources close to the matter.
The top prosecutor for the court said on Wednesday that it had received a total of 14,500 complaints – from individuals, doctors, associations and even prisoners – over the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Many of them target the government’s failure to supply protective equipment in the early stages of the crisis and alleged dithering before imposing lockdown measures.
A month after her initial comments, as she left the ministry to launch a failed bid to become Paris mayor, she again downplayed the virus – claiming that ‘the tsunami has yet to come’, in an apparent contradiction of her earlier statement.
Buzyn later told a parliamentary investigation that she had alerted the offices of both President Emmanuel Macron and then prime minister Edouard Philippe to the potential ‘dangers’ of Covid-19 as early as January.
Former Health Minister Agnes Buzyn (second right), who resigned in mid-February 2020 at the start of the Covid-19 epidemic, arrives accompanied by her French lawyer Eric Dezeuze (right) at the Court of Justice of the Republic on Friday
France’s fourth surge of infections has been receding in recent weeks as the government has stepped up vaccination efforts. Thursday saw France record 18,120 new cases of coronavirus, and 95 related deaths. Pictured: Graphs showing France’s new daily Covid cases and deaths
Prosecutors have been investigating Buzyn for possible ‘failure to fight a disaster’ over the pandemic, which has so far killed more than 115,000 people in France.
The Le Monde daily reported that she could also face charges for ‘endangering the lives of others’.
Depending on the outcome, Buzyn could either be charged immediately or given the status of ‘assisted witness’ which under French law means she remains under suspicion of wrongdoing, but not subject to formal charges which could still be brought later.
Philippe and her successor as health minister Olivier Veran are also being investigated for alleged shortcomings in their response to the pandemic.
Buzyn did not immediately respond to AFP’s request for comment on Thursday.
Buzyn, health minister from May 2017 to February 2020, had to step down at the start of the pandemic under pressure from President Emmanuel Macron to replace Benjamin Griveaux, the LREM party candidate for Mayor of Paris who was forced to withdraw after a sex-tape scandal.
Pictured: A man has a PCR test for the novelcorona virus, covid-19, at a medical laboratory in Paris on August 29, 2020.
Buzyn told a parliamentary investigation that she had alerted the offices of both President Emmanuel Macron and then prime minister Edouard Philippe to the potential ‘dangers’ of Covid-19 as early as January
She lost her bid for the Paris city hall and ended up being appointed in January to the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva, in charge of monitoring multilateral issues.
Spokespersons for the WHO and for the French health Ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.
The news comes as Prime Minister Jean Castex said France will start a booster shot program in nursing homes next week.
Some 300,000 people in France have already signed up to receive a third COVID-19 vaccine shot since the government started offering them a week ago.
While some health officials have argued against booster shots until more of the world is vaccinated, France is recommending people with pre-existing health problems and those over 65 receive a third shot six months after their second dose.
According to French government statistics, 88 percent of people 65 and above are fully vaccinated. Across all age groups, 68 percent are fully vaccinated and 73 percent have had at least one dose.
France’s fourth surge of infections has been receding in recent weeks as the government has stepped up vaccination efforts. Thursday saw France record 18,120 new cases of coronavirus, and 95 related deaths.