France's Covid-19 testing programme has been hugely expanded since the early days of the pandemic, when tests were in extremely short supply. The country is now testing just over 1 million people a week, but guidance on who should be tested has recently changed.
Who gets a test?
In the early days tests were only possible with a prescription, but this requirement was later scrapped. There are two main ways to access tests – through testing laboratories or walk-in or drive-in testing sites.
The laboratories require appointments made in advance, but often deliver faster test results, while the walk-in centres can be accessed by everyone but many people have complained of long waits to get their results – up to 10 days in some cases.
Both offer both the PCR nasal swab – which tells you if you have Covid now – and the finger-prick tests which shows if you may have previously had the virus.
At the start of the summer as the testing programme expanded, the government was encouraging as many people to get tested as possible and millions of people took advantage of this to get tests before going away on holiday or meeting up with family members.
However now the government says that testing should largely be concentrated on four groups; healthcare workers, the elderly or vulnerable, people with symptoms and contact cases – those who have been in close contact with a person who has the virus.
France is now testing just over 1 million people a week. Photo: AFP
Health minister Olivier Véran last week clarified what is classed as a contact case – those who have had direct and close contact with a patient. So if your colleague tests positive you would count as a contact case, but your partner – who has not had direct contact with your colleague – would not.
In the greater Paris Île-de-France region new walk-in testing centres have opened which will be available only to those in the priority groups. There are plans to roll out 'priority' centres in other French towns and cities.
If you go to a priority centre you are likely to be asked for some proof that you are a priority case – either a prescription or communication from the health authorities (such as a notification that you are a contact case) or, for health workers, a professional card.
There is no requirement to be a full-time resident in France or registered with the French health system in order to access a test.
Where are the tests?
To find a laboratory test you can search the interactive map here on the sante.gouv.fr site – find the nearest one then click on the point to get details of whether it is sur rendez-vous uniquement (appointment only) – which most are – and how to book an appointment.
For walk-in centres this is done on a regional basis, so head to the website for the Agence Régional de Sante (ARS) for your area. Many local mairies and préfectures also have lists of the walk-in centres in the area or dates for the travelling pop-up testing sites.
What type of tests?
Most testing centres offer both the PCR nasal swab and the finger-prick test. If you need a test to prove to an employer or school that you can return to work, or because you are planning to travel, only the PCR tests are accepted as evidence of Covid-free status. Many pharmacies also offer on-the-spot finger prick tests.
France is also developing a new type of swab test that can deliver results in just 30 minutes, that is now waiting for government approval before it can be rolled out.
How long for the results?
While access to testing has become less of a problem, many people are still complaining about long delays in getting their test results as laboratory staff are overwhelmed by the sheer number of samples to be tested.
Is this a record? Just got my Covid-19 test result back after…. 11 days. Test site was Town Hall in 10th arrondissement, Paris. From what I've heard people who go to the “labos” get results back pretty quickly – 48 hours. These “pop-up” test sites are not the most efficient….
— Ben McPartland (@McPBen) September 16, 2020
There has been a major expansion in the number of staff at labs, with nurses, medical students, healthcare assistance, firefighters and Red Cross volunteers all drafted in to help process the samples taken at testing centres. The government hopes that this, together with advice on who should be tested, will increase turnaround times, which is some cases have been as long as 10 days for the PCR test results (the finger-prick test results take just 15 minutes and are given on the spot).
Patients receive their results via SMS or email.
If you have symptoms you should self-isolate while waiting for the result of your tests.
How much do they cost?
The tests costs €54 and are fully reimbursed by the health system. Some laboratories are taking payment and then the patient is then reimbursed the full amount via their carte vitale, but the majority of walk-in centres are free at the point of delivery.