A French doctor holds a test tube after administering a nasal swab – Reuters
Staff at many of France’s overstretched coronavirus testing centres went on strike on Thursday in protest against low pay and working conditions that some compared to a war zone.
The one-day stoppage risked further disrupting a Covid-19 testing system already under severe stress.
Queues outside private laboratories, which carry out most of the 1.2 million tests currently being done weekly in France, stretched for several blocks from early morning.
The French health service covers the cost of tests and anyone is eligible to be tested, even without symptoms.
In south-western France, staff at 21 private testing centres have been on strike since Tuesday. Francine, a nurse who administers PCR tests, said: “The work load is just too much to cope with, and our wages are far too low.” She earns less than €1,500 (£1,370) a month.
Eric Sellini of the CGT union said: “We’re not sure how many facilities have had to close, but this is a large-scale movement across all the laboratories in France.”
Pascal Bourdeau, a technician at a laboratory in a Paris suburb, said: “Our working conditions are like Stalingrad,” referring to a bloody Second World War battle between the Soviet Red Army and Hitler’s forces. “Patients are aggressive, on edge. They want their results right away, but there’s only limited capacity. We’ve seen fights break out in the queue.”
Many people have complained of long waits for tests and results. Olivier Véran, the much-criticised health minister, has come under fire from fellow members of government for what one said was “the lack of a sense of urgency in large parts of the health ministry”. Mr Véran has promised to speed up testing.
It emerged on Thursday that Covid tests are costing France more than other EU countries, according to an investigation by Le Parisien newspaper.
The French health service is paying private contractors €75 (£68.60) per test. By comparison, private laboratories in Germany are banned from charging the health service more than €59 (£54).
Italian health authorities are also reportedly paying an average of €59. In Spain, tests at public centres or hospitals cost €30 to €45 (£27.50 to £41) and are free for those with symptoms. People can also get tested at private centres, where the price varies from €80 to €150 (£73 to £137).
French media have often praised Germany’s handling of the pandemic, contrasting it with France’s less effective approach.