What you need to know about France’s new testing policy

After complaints of long lines and delays in getting results back, the French government has decided to give certain groups priority when it comes to Covid-19 tests. Here's what we know about the new rules so far.

What you need to know about France's new testing policy
People queue for a Covid-19 at a testing booth in Montreuil, near Paris, on August 31st. Photo: AFP

French Health Minister Olivier Véran on Thursday urged patience over Covid-19 tests following widespread complaints of long waits for appointments and results, especially in Paris and other large cities.

“You’re questioning our strategy,” Véran said during the first of what will become a weekly press conference by the health minister on the Covid-19 situation in the country.

“We made the choice in France to allow every French person who wishes it and whatever the reason, to benefit from a free test without a prescription,” the health minister said.

The health minister defended the government's strategy, saying testing broadly permitted them to detect also asymptomatic cases and trace and break up transmission chains, but said the government had decided to tighten the rules to “ensure that priority groups get priority.”

What is the current strategy?

Testing was made a cornerstone in the French government's strategy to avoid that the virus spiral out of control as life returned to normal after the strict, nationwide lockdown imposed this spring.

The goal was that anyone in France should be able to get tested for free, no medical prescription needed. To achieve this goal the government massively ramped up the national Covid-19 testing programme. Since beginning to ease the lockdown mid May, few months the country increased the number of weekly PCR-tests (Q-tip tests) from around 200,000 to over 1 million per week.

Véran said Thursday the capacity had now reached 1,2 million tests per week.

Anyone can get tested for free in France. Photo: AFP

But increasing the number of tests did not solve all problems, as labs have become overwhelmed with demand.

“Nonetheless, a direct consequence of this large-scale testing is traffic jam,” he said, referring to the long queues outside labs across the country.

READ ALSO: How France's 'chaotic' Covid-19 testing strategy is causing a real headache

Some have reported not only waiting in line for hours, but also receiving the results days or even weeks later.


What will change?

To ensure that vulnerable groups get tested in time, the government is shifting its strategy towards targeting certain groups, the health minister said.

The details remain unclear and we will know more details in the coming days, but the health minister announced a shift from a free-for-all testing strategy to one where some groups get priority above others.

Instead of just showing up to a lab to queue, the French will have to reserve their time slot, the health minister said.

That will give labs leeway to prioritise serious cases above less serious ones.

Parisians queue up outside a free testing booth set up in front of the Hotel de Ville in Paris, on September 7th. Photo: AFP


Who will get priority?

This is where things become unclear. The health minister listed “people who have a medical prescription, symptomatic people, nurses, caregivers and contact cases,” but we don't know for example the category “symptomatic people” will be determined.

The health minister said the prioritisation scheme was work in progress, so we should get more details about exactly how this will work in practice soon.

He also said big cities would get additional screening centres to ease the pressure on labs.

Paris' greater region Ile-de-France will get 20 new testing centres on Monday where priority groups can tested, he said.

When should you get tested?

Only people who have been in contact with infected individuals, those showing symptoms or with a doctor's prescription should seek tests, the health minister said, to avoid a deluge of requests at labs already struggling to keep up.

“There is no point in getting tested too often. The test is not a health measure,” Véran said, referring to the governments official Covid-19 precautions on rigorous handwashing, wearing of face-masks and maintaining social distancing.

“[A test] must be done if you have any doubts or if you have been confirmed as a contact case,” he said.

A person is a contact case if they had spent time with a Covid-19 positive case and were alerted either by that person or by regional health authorities, the health minister said.

Anyone further out in the contact chain did not need to get tested, according to the health minister.

“Contact cases of contact cases are not contact cases,” he said.

Anything else?

He said the health ministry had ordered five million antigen test kits, which can give preliminary readings on Covid-19 contagion in just 30 minutes, for delivery in early October.

Regulatory approval for saliva tests is expected “imminently”, he said.

France has reported nearly 10,000 new cases per day over the past week, a steep rise from numbers over the summer. 


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France scraps compulsory self-isolation after positive Covid test

France's public health body has outlined how Covid-19 rules will change on February 1st, including an end to compulsory self-isolation after a positive test result.

France scraps compulsory self-isolation after positive Covid test

Starting on February 1st, Covid rules will relax in France as the country ends compulsory isolation for those who test positive for the virus.

However, those travelling from China to France will still be required to agree to a random screening upon arrival and to isolate in the case of a positive Covid-19 test result. Travellers aged 11 and over coming from China must also provide a negative test result (less tan 48 hours) prior to boarding and those aged six and over must agree to wear a mask on board flights. These regulations – which was set to last until January 31st – is set to remain in place until February 15th.

The French public health body (The Direction générale de la santé or DGS)  announced the change on Saturday in a decree published in the “Journal Officiel” outlining the various ways the body will loosen previous coronavirus restrictions.

READ MORE: What Covid rules and recommendations remain for visiting France?

Those who were in contact with someone who tested positive – ie a contact cases – will also no longer be required to take a test, though the public health body stressed that both testing after contact and isolating after receiving a positive test remain recommended.

Previously, even asymptomatic people who had been in contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19 were required to test on the second day after being notified that they were a “contact-case”.

These changes will take effect on February 1st.

READ MORE: What changes in France in February 2023?

The DGS also said that website SI-DEP, which records test results, will remain in operation until June 30th, however starting in February it will only collect personal data with the express permission of the patient.

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Additionally, the French government announced that sick leave procedures for people with Covid-19 will return to normal on February 1st – this means that those who test positive for Covid-19 will have the three-day wait period before daily sick benefits are required to be paid, as is usually the case. Previously, people with Covid-19 could expect daily sick benefits to begin at the start of their sick leave period (arrêt maladie in French).  

READ MORE: How sick leave pay in France compares to other countries in Europe

Covid tests are still available on walk-in basis from most pharmacies are are free to people who are fully vaccinated and registered in the French health system. Unvaccinated people, or visitors to France, have to pay up to a maximum of €22 for an antigen test of €49 for a PCR test. 

If you recently tested positive for Covid-19 in France – or you suspect you may have contracted Covid-19 – you can find some information for how to proceed here.

In explaining the changes that will begin in February, the French public health body also noted a drop in Covid-19 infections in the past month. As of January 30th, approximately 3,800 people in France had tested positive in the previous 24 hours for the coronavirus – which represents a decrease from the averages of 20,000 new cases per day about one month ago.