France launches mass Covid-19 screening campaigns before lifting lockdown

Health workers conduct antigen rapid tests for Covid-19 at a screening facility set up in Paris, on November 23, 2020.
Health workers conduct antigen rapid tests for Covid-19 at a screening facility set up in Paris, on November 23, 2020. © Thomas Coex, AFP

The French cities of Le Havre, on the Normandy coast, and Charleville-Mézières, near the Belgian border, are conducting mass Covid-19 testing campaigns on Monday in the country's latest effort to stem the spread of the disease before the holidays and the end of France's second lockdown on Tuesday.


While the French will be allowed to circulate freely throughout the country without having to document their comings-and-goings with administrative permits, the number of new daily coronavirus infections remains high above the government's objective for mid-December.

In a televised address at the end of October setting the course for a fresh Covid-19 lockdown, President Emmanuel Macron said he hoped the figure would "over time" drop to 5,000 infections per day. But the daily average over the past week has been 12,000 new infections.

On Sunday, health authority Santé Publique France reported 11,533 infections registered over the previous 24 hours and 150 deaths.

The death toll from the coronavirus pandemic in France stands at nearly 58,000, including almost 40,000 in hospital.

The French government is now wagering on a new, more targeted strategy with mass testing in an effort to stem the spread.

"These operations are as much a way to limit the spread of the virus in the urban areas concerned as a means to test our 'test-alert-protect' strategy, which you see evolving," Health Minister Olivier Véran said Thursday.

The 270,000 residents of the greater Le Havre area have been invited to be screened for coronavirus from Monday through Friday this week. The screenings will be available "without appointment and free, with a result within a half-hour," Le Havre mayor and former prime minister Edouard Philippe told the Journal de Dimanche newspaper.

"In Liverpool, they managed to test about a third of the 500,000 residents in four days. If we tested 50 percent of the population, I would be the happiest man! We will likely come under that," Philippe said.

Meanwhile, in the Ardennes, French health authorities are focusing on testing the residents of the department's two main cities, Charleville-Mézières and Sedan, some 123,000 people.

"Respecting the health protocols alone will not suffice to break the cycle of the epidemic's spread. It is out of the question that the holiday season generate a third wave, which would be formidable in our area," said the cities' joint authority, Ardenne Métropole.

The initiative in Eastern France is set to run through Friday, as well as from December 21 to 23 and December 28 to 30. The screenings there are also to be free, expedient and conducted without appointment.

Two other cities, Saint-Etienne and Roubaix, are slated to conduct similar mass testing operations in January. Both have been among the locations in France that have seen the coronavirus circulate most extensively.

Epidemiologists say that mass testing is only helpful if the results are used quickly, with those who test positive isolating and with social contacts limited in the worst affected areas.

Isolation, however, will not be enforced as it has in some other countries. Instead, Normandy's regional health agency said there would be "individual support, notably to isolate as quickly and as efficiently as possible".

Tuesday is officially the end of France's second Covid-19 lockdown, which will give way to a curfew from 8pm to 6am daily, with an exception made for December 24, Christmas Eve.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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