SAINT-BARTHÉLEMY-D'ANJOU, FRANCE (AFP) - France is rushing to produce millions of face masks and thousands of ventilators as reliance on imports to fight the coronavirus has exposed the country's need for "independence" in producing vital medical equipment, President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday (March 31).
"We have to rebuild our national and European sovereignty," Mr Macron said as he visited a surgical mask factory in Saint-Barthelemy-d'Anjou, near Angers in western France, where he donned a mask, coveralls and a plastic hairnet to tour the facility.
Mr Macron promised "full independence" by the end of the year in the production of protective face masks for France, which like most other countries was woefully understocked when the epidemic struck.
With some 40 million masks required per week for frontline medical staff, the government had placed orders for over a billion masks to be delivered in the coming weeks, mainly from China.
In the meantime, local production is being ramped up, with capacity to reach 10 million masks per week by the end of next month, compared to 3.3 million per week before the crisis struck.
The number could rise to 15 million per week with the aid of several companies that have volunteered contributions.
In terms of the urgent need for ventilators to help the most serious Covid-19 cases, Mr Macron announced that 10,000 would be produced by a consortium of companies at two factories in France.
Of these, 4,500 will be delivered during the last two weeks of April, and the rest before mid-May.
"This crisis has taught us that for certain goods, certain products, certain materials, their strategic character requires that we have European sovereignty," Mr Macron said.
Production of hand sanitising gel has grown from 40,000 to 500,000 litres per day, he added.
France is one of the five countries with the highest coronavirus death rates so far, recording its highest daily toll of 418 on Monday to bring the total to 3,024.
Yet only people who died while hospitalised with coronavirus are counted towards the official tally in France, where nearly 21,000 people have been hospitalised and more than 5,000 are in intensive care.
"I want by the end of the year that we have obtained full independence" regarding the manufacturing of surgical masks that help shield doctors and nurses from contagion, Mr Macron said.
He announced an allocation of four billion euros (S$6.27 billion) to the national health agency to buy coronavirus medicines, masks and ventilators.
Asked about criticism that the government was ill-prepared for the outbreak, Mr Macron said it was "irresponsible" to try to ascribe blame "while we have not yet won the war" against the coronavirus.
The time for "full transparency" will come, he promised.
France continued evacuating patients on Tuesday from hospitals in the hard-hit and under-equipped east of country, and sent the presidential plane with three tonnes of medical equipment to its Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte, which recorded its first coronavirus death.
The government has already banned the sale of surgical masks to the general public, while requisitioning all stocks and production for medical staff.
Authorities have been seizing illicit stockpiles from pharmacies and elsewhere.
On Tuesday, police said they had confiscated 32,500 surgical masks from China at a delivery depot north of Paris.