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What is France’s coronavirus tracker and how does it work?

The French government's strategy for reopening the country relies on three pillars - testing, social distancing and tracking. But how will the tracking be done?

What is France's coronavirus tracker and how does it work?
The tracker is on a smartphone app. Photo: AFP

As he unveiled more details of the post-lockdown phase in France, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe also said that moving into the stage of looser restrictions depended on three things.

READ ALSO 'Living with the virus' – the plan for life in France after lockdown

Testing has not been widespread in France. Photo: AFP

The first pillar was the continuing of gestes barrières – social distancing measures coupled with good hygiene practices such as hand-washing.

The second pillar was testing – something France has been widely criticised for not doing widely enough, but which health minister Olivier Véran says will be up to 500,000 tests a week by the time the lockdown starts to be eased on May 11th.

But it's the third pillar that has both the fewest details and the greatest potential for controversy – tracking all infected and potentially infected people.

Contact testing

At the beginning of the outbreak, France operated a policy of contact testing, in which anyone who had had contact with an infected person was also tested for the virus.

At the start this was feasible, because most cases were linked to foreign travel so it was relatively easy to isolate all the people a patient had contact with in between their return to France and the development of symptoms.

However as the number of cases grew, this rapidly because impractical, France moved to only testing healthcare workers and people with severe symptoms of the virus.

In recent days this has been widened further and there is now mass testing being rolled out in the country's Ehpad nursing homes.

By May 11th, there will be sufficient capacity to test everyone with symptoms, says Véran, but what about people they come into contact with?

The app

This is where France's new coronavirus tracker app – StopCovid – comes in.

The basic idea is to replicate the idea of the early contact tracing but using technology.

People download the app onto their phones, which continuously records the contact you have with people, and alerts you if one of them tests positive for coronavirus.

The app, which is not yet available to download, is modelled after similar apps developed in other countries, such as the TraceTogether app in Singapore.

Not much is know yet about the technical details, but it is thought that the app will use Bluetooth to recognise devices carried by people you meet.

Is it compulsory?

The idea of having your every interaction tracked by your phone has already stirred up some privacy concerns, so ministers mentioning this have been careful to stress that it is voluntary.

Many people have registered concerns about privacy and state intrusion.

Fifteen French MPs from the ruling La République en Marche party have already published an open letter in Le Figaro calling for more debate on “the use of new technologies that are intrusive and that question our fundamental freedoms”.

Bluetooth technology was chosen as the format because it focuses on the proximity of devices, rather than tracking location, so is theoretically less invasive.

Digital Affairs Minister Cedric O. Photo: AFP

Are there any other problems with it?

Making it voluntary might have eased privacy concerns, but it has raised further questions on the value of the app if not everyone is using it.

The Singapore government estimated that at least 75 percent of the population needed to be using their app for it to be effective.

France has the added problem of a sharper digital divide than many countries.

As this is an app, it needs a smartphone to use it on and yet the most recent government figures show that 13 million people in France use the internet very infrequently – and many of those people are unlikely to own a smartphone.

In general the people most likely to have problems with internet use were shown to be the elderly – the group most vulnerable to coronavirus.

Cedric O, the Digital Affairs Minister, said he was working “on various possibilities of assistance with equipment, or alternatives to smartphones for those who do not have them”.

The other issue is that it relies on there being the testing capacity for people alerted by the app to possible contamination to go and get themselves tested – an issue that France has struggled with.

When is it likely to be available?

The Institut national de recherche en informatique et en automatique (Inria) and its 'task force français' have been charged with researching the implementation of the app.

The app itself is still under development, but its use is scheduled to be debated in the French parliament at the end of April.

 

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COVID-19

Return of the health pass? How France plans to tackle new wave of Covid cases

With a sharp rise in reported cases in recent weeks, France appears to be in the middle of a new wave of Covid infections - so what measures are the government taking to control it?

Return of the health pass? How France plans to tackle new wave of Covid cases

Recorded case numbers in France are now over 90,000 per day, with 133,000 recorded in the past 24 hours – this is a long way short of the 350,000 weekly cases recorded in January but still the highest since May and representing a steady an increase of 67 percent on the previous week.

Hospital admissions are also on the rise – up 32 percent from last week.

So what is the French government doing about it?

Since March, almost all Covid-related restrictions have been lifted in France – the health pass is no longer required for everyday activities such as visiting a bar or going to the gym and face masks are now merely advised in all indoor locations. Only hospitals and other health establishments such as nursing homes still have mandatory rules on face masks and health passes.

For international travel, fully vaccinated arrivals from most countries – including the UK, US and the whole of the EU – need only to show proof of vaccination, while unvaccinated travellers need to show proof of a recent negative Covid test – full details HERE.

Health pass

A proposed bill from the health ministry that was leaked to French media talks about re-imposing some form of pass sanitaire (health pass) to get numbers under control.

Some caveats to add here is that the document is only a proposal at this stage and the government has explicitly rules out – for the moment – reintroducing the vaccine pass. The health pass can be used to show either proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid test, so it is less restrictive for the unvaccinated.

The document suggests re-introducing a health pass for travel – both to and from France – not for everyday activities like going to a café.

Testing and contact tracing

The bill also proposes extending the software involved in contact tracing and the Covid testing programme until March 2023, although this is described as a ‘precaution’.

Testing remains available on a walk-in basis at most French pharmacies and by appointment at health centres and medical labs. Tests are free for fully-vaccinated residents of France who have a carte vitale. Those are only visiting France, who are not registered in the French health system or who are not vaccinated have to pay – prices are capped at €22 for an antigen test and €54 for a PCR test.

READ ALSO How tourists in France can get a Covid test

Masks

The Minister of Health, Brigitte Bourguignon, said she is “asking the French to wear masks on public transport once again” during an interview with RTL on Monday, June 27th and the Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has also recommended this. She also recommended wearing a mask in all other enclosed crowded areas, as a “civic gesture.” However, she did not refer to the request as a government mandated obligation.

At present masks are not required, but are recommended, especially on busy services where it is impossible to practice social distancing. In recent days several public transport operators have changed their messaging from saying that masks are merely recommended to be ‘strongly recommended for the protection of everyone’.

Epidemiologist Pascal Crépey said: “In crowded trains, the risk of being in the presence of infected people is high. It would be a good idea for the population to wear the mask, to protect especially the most fragile and avoid massive infection rates.”

A recent poll for the Journal du Dimanche newspaper showed that 71 percent of people are in favour of making masks compulsory on public transport again.

Local measures

French local authorities also have the power to impose certain types of restrictions if their area has a particularly high rate of infections.

At present, none have done so, but Nice mayor Christian Estrosi has spoken in favour of possibly bringing back the vaccine pass over the summer.

Second booster shots

A second booster shot of the Covid vaccine is now available to all over 60s and anyone who has a long-term medical condition or who is otherwise at risk from Covid.

It is recommended that the government increase public messaging advising those in high risk groups to get the second booster shot. The medical regular HAS has advised combining second booster shots with the seasonal flu vaccine campaign in September and October.

France is not, at present, considering widening the campaign to the entire popular, but the EU’s vaccine commissioner Thierry Breton says that if necessary, there would be enough doses to cover the whole population.

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