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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 September, 2003, 16:30 GMT 17:30 UK
'Scapegoat' French doctors hit back
Woman in hospital
The tragedy has prompted soul searching
French doctors have angrily hit back at an official report which said their "massive" holiday exodus last month had contributed to the heatwave tragedy.

The report, published on Monday, also blamed failures of communication between different departments and front-line medical staff, and the 35-hour working week.

Hospital wards and mortuaries were filled to overflowing as temperatures passed 40C (104F) in the first two weeks of August.

The government has given a provisional figure of more than 11,400 deaths resulting from the heat, but on Tuesday the country's leading undertakers' organisation increased its own estimate to 15,000.

People who were themselves on holiday are shifting the blame onto other people's holidays
Michel Combier
Family doctors' union UNOF
Family doctors say they will not be blamed for the wider failures of the system.

"People who were themselves on holiday are shifting the blame onto other people's holidays," said Michel Combier, president of the family doctors' organisation Unof.

"The doctors did their job.

"The problem wasn't that everyone was on vacation, but that the alert system was too weak to allow for hospitals to get everyone back working."

Another group, the CSMF (Confederation of French Doctors' Unions), was equally angry.

Elderly patient rushed to hospital
Hospitals could not keep pace with the rate of casualties
"I find it rather incongruous to reproach a doctor for going on holiday in August when the doctors are among those who work the longest hours, an average of 59 hours a week," said president Dr Michel Chassang.

"I note with disbelief that the practice of 'hot potatoes' and scapegoating continues."

And Pierre Costes, head of general practitioners' union, MG-France, told AFP news agency: "After the families, the GPs are the scapegoats."

The report, ordered by the health ministry, said the mass departure of doctors had been a significant factor in the crisis.

"Hospitals found themselves in growing difficulties to provide personnel in a sufficient number," said the report.

"Despite all their efforts, personnel were unable to stop the almost total flooding of emergency services and the intolerable crowding of hospital corridors."

France - 11,400
Netherlands - 1,400
Portugal - 1,300
UK - 900
Spain - 100
The report said government departments and emergency services had no system for sharing information, and some key authorities had no ability to prevent a crisis, only to react to one.

It recommended new ways of working - including liaison between weather forecasters and health authorities - and a new alert system, to ensure that the tragedy could not be repeated.

The government has said it may cancel one of the country's 11 public holidays to pay for better care for the elderly.

The tragedy - which saw dozens of dead buried in paupers' graves - also provoked much soul-searching about the separation of many elderly people from their families.

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