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

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

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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