German health minister facing calls to resign over mask furore

Germany’s health minister is facing calls to resign over accusations his ministry planned to distribute face masks considered inadequate protection against Covid-19 to socially and physically vulnerable people.

Jens Spahn was the subject of a fierce debate in the German parliament, the Bundestag, on Wednesday afternoon, in which he was accused of putting the desire to be seen to be acting to tackle the pandemic ahead of safety concerns.

Spahn has denied the accusations, stating that the masks were properly inspected by his ministry, which set up its own emergency safety control mechanism to test them. One care home that received the masks reported that they had a strong smell and had to be disposed of.

The masks in question were classed as being FFP2 – filtering face coverings meant to protect against solid and liquid aerosols and normally suitable for a medical setting – and were bought from a Chinese manufacturer for an estimated €1bn (£860m).

The order was placed in the first quarter of 2020 when there was a worldwide mask shortage. According to a report in Der Spiegel magazine, the ministry of health planned to distribute the masks to homeless people, physically disabled people and benefit recipients.

The ministry of labour, which is responsible for mask safety – which in non-pandemic times applies mainly to the workplace – refused to approve their use, according to the magazine.

The fact Spahn is from the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the labour minister, Hubertus Heil, is a Social Democrat (SPD) has been used by commentators to suggest that the flames of the row have been deliberately fanned to create distance between the parties – in a grand coalition since 2017 – ahead of September’s national election.

The Bundestag debate, which was called by Die Linke, was used by Spahn’s opponents to point out what they called his mistakes during the pandemic, including his alleged failure to equip the country for a pandemic despite widespread warnings, his lack of intervention over the EU’s slow attempts to procure vaccine stocks even when Germany held the presidency of the European Council, and his approval of coronavirus test centres that have been allowed to be set up across Germany with little official scrutiny.

Carsten Schneider of the SPD told the Bundestag he was “furious that vulnerable groups have been offered masks deemed second class”. He called the health ministry’s performance during the pandemic “below average”.

The Free Democratic party (FPD) has called for a special investigatory commission into the affair.

Spahn has received the backing of the chancellor, Angela Merkel, who was reported to have told a meeting of CDU leaders the accusations against him had “no basis in fact” and could not be left undefended.

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