French health chief quits, warning heat toll could be 5,000

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A senior French health official resigned yesterday as the government admitted as many as 5,000 people might have died in the recent heatwave.

Lucien Abenhaim, director of the national health authority, said he had tendered his resignation after Jean-François Mattei, the Health Minister, who is also under pressure to resign, blamed the national health directorate for failing "to provide us with the information and warning signal that we should have had''.

Mr Mattei conceded for the first time that the government did not act in time to prevent deaths among the elderly and vulnerable during the three-week heatwave. A week ago, the government dismissed a claim by a Paris doctor that 50 people had died in the capital.

Mr Mattei said a figure of 5,000 deaths between 25 July and last week was "plausible" but that reliable statistics would not be available for weeks. "It's a hypothesis; it's plausible, but it's only a hypothesis," he said, referring to the claim by Patrick Pelloux, the head of France's emergency physicians' association who said the death toll could be as high as 5,000.

Mr Mattei said on French radio: "I am now privately convinced that ... we did not have the information or the warning signal we should have had. I feel that as soon as we were alerted, we did what we had to do but I'm not sure we were alerted as early as was desirable. I realised something was wrong on 11 August when, on one hand, I had a message saying everything was all right and, on the other, I was speaking to accident and emergency services which were telling me the situation was untenable."

Mr Mattei said he felt "hurt" not to have done everything possible to solve the problem, adding: "We have had two heatwaves in France, in 1976 when there were 3,000 dead and another, in 1983, when there were 3,244 deaths. These things became known only much later."

The aftermath of the crisis is likely to dominate Thursday's first cabinet meeting after the summer holidays. Last week Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the Prime Minister, cut short his holiday after temperatures topped 40C (104F) and medical staff all over the country spoke out against the government's failure to react.

The meeting led to the imposition of an emergency plan in hospitals allowing for extra payments to staff and more beds. But by the time the plan, intended for wars and epidem-ics, was imposed, most hospital districts had already brought in volunteer staff.

Hervé Gaymard, the Agriculture Minister, is to compensate farmers for harvests expected to be down by between 15 and 35 per cent. In western France, poultry breeders said 1.7 million battery hens died in the heat. Only wine makers say the heatwave has been good for them and an exceptional vintage is expected this year.

Yesterday, Noêl Mamère, a leading Green Party MP and François Hollande, first secretary of the socialist party, called for a parliamentary inquiry. Mr Mamère said the government's policy had been to "run away from the crisis".

He said the government's move during the heatwave to allow France's nuclear power stations to release coolant waters into rivers at temperatures considered unsafe for ecosystems should cause the country's dependence on atomic energy to be reviewed.