France begins pre-Christmas mass testing campaign in several cities

Mobile Covid-19 testing centres will be set up in different urban areas across France in a bid to get infection rates down, December 2020 (illustration)
Mobile Covid-19 testing centres will be set up in different urban areas across France in a bid to get infection rates down, December 2020 (illustration) AP Photo/Michel Euler

France has begun a Covid-19 mass testing drive in the northern city of Le Havre, where Mayor Edouard Philippe is managing his expectations, saying he would be happy if half of the population was tested. It's one of several campaigns to be launched before and after Christmas across France as part of the government's "test, alert, protect" strategy.


"If we can test a significant number of people, we will obviously find among them those who are asymptomatic...and by doing so we will avoid extra transmissions.We need to be responsible towards our friends and family," Mayor of Le Havre and former prime minister Edouard Philippe told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

Philippe was speaking ahead of the mass Covid-19 testing campaign which is to get under way on Monday in Le Havre, and will go through until Sunday.

Charleville-Mézières in the east of France will also begin a mass testing campaign as of 14 December. Roubaix in the north of France will hold its campaign from 11 to 16 January 2021, followed by Saint-Etienne in the centre of France around 11 January.  

Explaining his choice for Le Havre to be a pilot test city, Philippe pointed out that the area was particularly hard hit during the peak of the second wave of Covid-19, with an infection rate of 500 per 100,000 inhabitants, a figure which has since gone down.

For him, the mass testing operation is a form of "collective discipline". It is not only a way of reassuring his citizens, but plays a role in the ongoing scientific research needed to better understand the virus.

"I haven't set myself an objective. In Liverpool, they managed to test around 500,000 people in four days. If we could test 50 percent of our population, I'd be extremely happy. But we will no doubt be below that," he said.

"The idea is to offer a free test to 270,000 residents in 54 towns around Le Havre. There is no need for an appointment, and the tests will give a result within half an hour," he said, referring to the new antigen tests. PCR lab tests will also be available but they need 24-48 hours for results.

In terms of logistics, more than 50 sites will including pharmacies, labs, and medical centres will carry out tests, as well as 20 large centres which can handle between 500 and 1,000 people a day.

 "250 student nurses, pharmacists, doctors, first aid personnel and Red Cross workers will be mobilised," Philippe said, adding that tests would be made available to teachers and students in the public school network aswell.

The voluntary testing campaigns before and after Christmas are part of the government's "test-alert-protect" strategy, which aims to focus more on more effective self-isolation and patient follow-up to bring down infections.

Daily infection rate still high

Health minister Olivier Véran warned however on Friday that massive testing should not be considered a form of "immunity", and must remain complementary to the other health measures in place such as wearing masks, hand washing and social distancing.

This comes as the number of daily infections nationwide hit nearly 14,000 on Saturday, according to the public health authority Santé Publique France.

This is far from the 5,000 which the government cited as a ballpark for lifting certain restrictions on 15 December.

Since the average daily infection rate is hovering around 10,000, many of the restrictions, including a nighttime curfew will remain in place and many services such as sports clubs, theatres, restaurants and cinemas will remain closed until the beginning of January.

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