Police have raided the homes and offices of France’s health minister, public health director and former prime minister as part of an investigation into the country’s response to the pandemic.
The country is in the grip of a worsening second wave, with new daily coronavirus infections hitting a record – jumping above 30,000 for the first time.
The judicial probe was launched in July following dozens of complaints by doctors, local authorities and nursing homes.
It aims to establish whether those in charge at the start of the outbreak showed a “lack of will to fight a disaster”.
The raid comes as France imposed a 9pm curfew and Europe reels from record infections in several countries, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) issuing a fresh warning to the continent.
Coronavirus infections have hit record daily highs in Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland while the UK, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands are of concern.
New infections have surged across Europe in recent weeks as the autumn kicks in, prompting authorities to start re-imposing restrictions relaxed over the summer.
The head of WHO’s Europe office urged governments to step up and be “uncompromising” in controlling the virus.
“The evolving epidemic in Europe raises great concern,” he said.
“But we should not hold back with relatively smaller actions in order to avoid the same very painful damaging actions we saw in the first peak.”
Dr Kluge said most of the spread was happening in homes, indoor spaces and communities not complying with protection measures.
He cited epidemiological models that suggested if 95 per cent of people wear masks and follow other social distancing measures, the continent could avoid about 281,000 deaths by February.
But he warned that relaxing measures could lead to a five-fold increase in deaths across Europe by January.
European countries have registered nearly 230,000 confirmed deaths from the virus – more than the nearly 217,000 reported virus deaths so far in the United States, according to figures tallied by Johns Hopkins University.
The UK government has moved London and a half-dozen other areas into the country’s second-highest virus risk level, meaning that millions will be barred from meeting people outside their households and will be asked to minimise travel.
Meanwhile French Prime Minister Jean Castex said he maintained full confidence in Health Minister Olivier Veran and public health director Jerome Salomon amid outcry over the government’s handling of COVID.
The French raids took place just hours after President Emmanuel Macron ordered a night curfew affecting almost a third of the French population, seeking to tackle a surging second wave of coronavirus infections.
A health ministry official said the raids were conducted without any impediment.
BFM TV said the raids also targeted Veran’s predecessor Agnes Buzyn, former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and former government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye.
“Everything was very courteous and with (the former prime minister’s) full co-operation,” said a spokesman for Philippe, who is now mayor of the port city of Le Havre.