We need funding, not medals, exhausted doctors tell France’s Macron

Health workers at the intensive care unit of Robert Ballanger hospital in Aulnay-sous-Bois, north of Paris, pictured on April 30, 2020.
Health workers at the intensive care unit of Robert Ballanger hospital in Aulnay-sous-Bois, north of Paris, pictured on April 30, 2020. © Gonzalo Fuentes, REUTERS

French doctors faced off with President Emmanuel Macron at a leading Paris hospital on Friday, demanding more investment and a rethink of the country's once-renowned public health system that found itself quickly overwhelmed by tens of thousands of coronavirus patients.

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Macron acknowledged mistakes in reforming the national hospital system, which has faced years of cost cuts, leaving medical facilities in one of the world's richest countries short of staff, masks and breathing machines needed to fight the virus crisis.

“For months I was asking for equipment, and we had only [enough for] three days to fight against the virus," Martin Hirsch, head of the Paris hospital network, told the French president.

As the virus raced across France in March and saturated several hospitals, Macron had to deploy the armed forces to build the country's first-ever peacetime field hospital and move patients and doctors around in military transport jets and specially fitted high-speed trains.

The French hospital problems long predate the virus crisis, and emergency room workers held strikes and protests for months last year demanding more hiring and funding after years of job losses.

Macron's government announced a plan last year to address the growing concerns, and injected new money when the virus hit, but Macron acknowledged Friday: “We undoubtedly made a mistake in the strategy.”

“It was a great strategy, but we should have done it 10 years ago,” he told frustrated staff at Pitié-Salpetrière Hospital.

Macron promised to launch a new investment plan while the virus crisis is still raging, without offering details. “Trust will only come if we move fast,” he said.

'We can't go back like before'

Macron met with an angry reception on a visit to the same hospital in February, as the president sought to show he was successfully managing the virus. Leading neurologist Dr. Frédéric Salachas confronted Macron to describe how the virus crisis — which was just barely beginning — had already revealed weaknesses in French hospitals caused by years of budget cuts.

“You can count on us," Salachas told the president at the time. “But it remains to be seen whether we can count on you.”

President Emmanuel Macron pictured during his previous visit to the Pitié-Salpetrière hospital on February 27, 2020
President Emmanuel Macron pictured during his previous visit to the Pitié-Salpetrière hospital on February 27, 2020 © Martin Bureau, AFP

The damaging exchange aggravated public frustration with Macron. Apparently worried about a repeat scenario, Macron’s office did not allow any photographers or video or radio journalists to witness Friday's hospital visit. And no reporters at all were allowed when Macron met with union members to discuss their grievances.

As he sat around a table in a separate meeting with top doctors, the reception was firm.

“We cannot go back to where we were before,” said Thomas Similowski, head of the hospitals’ medical commission, calling for a rethink of medical training, higher salaries across the board, and more flexibility to deal with new threats.

The French government has said it will pay bonuses of 500-1,500 euros to all health workers and promised a special “medal of commitment” to all those on the Covid-19 front line, but hospital staff have warned they will not settle for one-off consolation gifts.

Hospitals “don’t need medals, they need funding,” said the pressure group Collectif inter-hôpitaux on Thursday.

French authorities say more than 27,000 people with the virus have died in hospitals and nursing homes, compared to about 7,000 in neighbouring Germany, which tested much more widely than France and entered the crisis with six times as many intensive care beds.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)

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