France begins mass Covid testing in four areas

France has begun a programme of mass-testing for Covid-19 in four areas, which if successful could be expanded around the country.

France begins mass Covid testing in four areas
The nasal swab Covid-19 tests are free in France. Photo: AFP

The mass testing programme was announced last week by Health Minister Olivier Véran and begins on Monday, December 14th. Here's what is happening and why.

Testing centres

Four areas have been selected for the testing programme. They are Le Havre in Normandy, Charleville-Mézières in the Belgian border département of Ardennes, Roubaix on the outskirts of Lille and Saint-Etienne in the Loire département.

Testing begins in Le Havre and Charleville-Mézières on Monday, December 14th and runs until the end of the week, followed by Roubaix and Saint-Etienne from January 11th for a week.

In Charleville-Mézières there will also be extra testing sessions in the run-up to Christmas (December 21st to 23rd) and New Year (December 28th to 30th).

What will the testing involve?

New walk-in and drive-in centres will be set up and everyone in the area will be encouraged to be tested. Le Havre has around 50 sites taking part in the trial, while Charleville-Mézières has around 80.

The tests are not compulsory, but health authorities are estimating that around 15 to 20 percent of the towns' populations will come forward to be tested – around 35,000 people in Le Havre and 9,000 people in Charleville-Mézières.

Both antigen tests and PCR tests will be on offer – the antigen test offers results immediately but is generally considered less reliable, while the PCR test is more reliable but has to be sent away to a laboratory to be processed and generally takes around 48 hours to get results.

People will be given the choice of the type of test they take.

At the Le Havre site, anyone who tests positive will also be offered on-the-spot contact tracing while in Charleville-Mézières contact tracing will be done later by phone, as usual, but extra contact tracing staff have been taken on to ensure there are no delays. 

As with all testing in France, the tests are free.

Why those four places?

All four areas are places that have been badly hit during the second wave of the epidemic with high case numbers and pressure on health services.

Their local authorities volunteered to be part of the trial, and the health ministry has tried to select a variety of demographics, from big cities like Le Havre to an urban conurbation of smaller towns.

What about people who don't live in those four places?

Testing is still available in France, although the laboratoires are on an appointment-only basis while some of the walk-in centres are prioritising people with symptoms or contact cases.

At present the advice is that people should only get tested if they have symptoms, if they are contacted as a contact trace or if they believe they have been in contact with someone who has the virus. For the full breakdown of how testing works, click HERE.

There is also an increasing number of pharmacies offering the quick-result antigen test on a walk-in basis.

Here's what Véran said about whether people should get one of those types of test before travelling at Christmas.

What next?

The health ministry will then assess how well the trials have gone and either roll out more mass testing sites or use the trials as a blueprint to bring in temporary mass-testing in areas which have high numbers of cases.


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France launches ski safety campaign after rising number of accidents

Injuries and even deaths while skiing in France have seen a sharp rise in recent years - leading the French government to create a new ski safety campaign.

France launches ski safety campaign after rising number of accidents

The early part of the ski season in France was dominated by headlines over the lack of snow in popular mountain resorts – but, now that climatic conditions have started to improve for skiers and there is at least some snow, the winter sports season is in gearing up to hit full swing.

READ ALSO Snow latest: Have France’s ski resorts reopened?

Heading into the winter holiday season – French schools in ‘Zone A’ break up for two weeks on February 4th, followed on February 11th by schools in ‘Zone B’, while schools in Zone C finish for the vacation on February 18th – the government has launched an awareness campaign highlighting skiing good practice and how to avoid accidents.

READ ALSO What can I do if I’ve booked a French skiing holiday and there’s no snow?

The Pratiquer l’hiver campaign has advice, posters and videos highlighting safety on the slopes, in an effort to reduce the number of accidents on France’s mountains – where, every year, between 42,000 and 51,000 people have to be rescued, according to the Système National d’Observation de la Sécurité en Montagne (SNOSM)

The campaign, with information in a number of languages including English, covers:

  • on-piste and off-piste safety advice (signalling, avalanche risks, freestyle areas, snowshoes, ski touring, etc.);
  • Help and instructions for children explained in a fun and educational way (educational games, games of the 7 families to be cut out, safety quizzes, advice sheets for sledding, skiing, prevention clips, etc.);
  • physical preparation (warm up before exercise, prepare your muscles and stretch well, also how to adapt the choice of pistes and the speed to your physical condition);
  • equipment and safety (helmet, goggles, sunscreen, etc.);
  • marking and signalling on the slopes (opening and marking of green, blue, red and black slopes, off-piste).

There are 220 ski resorts in France, the world’s second largest ski area, covering more than 26,500 hectares of land, across 30 departements.

In the 2021/22 ski season, totalling 53.9 million ‘ski days’, according to SNOSM, emergency services made 49,622 interventions in France’s ski areas, and 45,985 victims were treated for injuries.

The results show an increase in the number of interventions by ski safety services – a rise of 13 percent compared to the average of the five years prior to the pandemic – and the number of injured, up 8 percent. 

A few incidents on the slopes made the headlines at the time, including the five-year-old British girl who died after an adult skier crashed into her in the Alpine resort of Flaine, and the French actor Gaspard Ulliel, who died at the age of 37 after an accident while skiing in La Rosière, Savoie.

In total, 12 people died as a result of skiing incidents in France in the 2021/22 ski season. Three died following collisions between skiers, two after hitting an obstacle, and seven as a result of a fall or solo injuries. SNOSM also reported “a significant number of non-traumatic deaths, mostly due to cardiac problems” on France’s ski slopes.

The injuries due to solo falls – which represent 95 percent of all injuries –  on the ski slopes increased 2 percent compared to winter 2018/2019. Collisions between users fell, however (4.8 percent against . 5.6 percent) as did collisions between skiers and other people, and obstacles (0.7 percent compared to 0.85 percent).

The number of fatalities caused by avalanches, however, is at a historic low over the period 2011 to 2021, in part because of a relative lack of snow – leading to a drop in the number of avalanches and fewer people going off-piste, while awareness campaigns are hitting their mark, according to SNOSM.