France Covid health pass: What is it and how would it work?

Plans for digital health passes to allow people to resume leisure activities and travel are being discussed in France and Europe. Here's what we know so far

10 March 2021
QR code on smartphone. France Covid health pass: What is it and how would it work?The digital pass will likely be in the form of a scannable QR code, available on smartphones
By Joanna York

Digital health passes allowing people to resume activities such as going to museums, restaurants, sports centres and travelling overseas could be introduced in France in the coming months.

The idea is also being considered at the European level to facilitate travel between different countries in Europe and beyond.

But introducing the new passes may not be easy.

President Emmanuel Macron presented the idea of the health pass at the European Council on February 25. 

He said it would “bring up many technical questions with respect to individual data and the organisation of freedoms”.

So, how would health passes work? Would they be obligatory? When might they be introduced? 

We explain what we know so far.

Why are health passes being discussed?

The government has said that introducing the passes could help safely reopen establishments that have been closed for months, such as restaurants, museums, gyms, sports halls and cultural spaces. 

No decisions have been made about whether the health pass would be obligatory, who would check passes in different establishments, or which establishments could ask for a pass – for example, it could potentially be required only in places where there is a high health risk.

How is a health pass different to a vaccine pass?

The idea of a vaccine pass - which would hypothetically allow people who had received the Covid-19 vaccine greater freedoms - has also been discussed in France but has so far been rejected by President Macron.

The President said a vaccine pass would not work as not enough people in France have received a Covid vaccine.

Figures from March 8 show that 5.96% of people in France have received at least one dose of the vaccine so far.

By contrast, a health pass would not only contain information about vaccination but also about recent Covid tests, making it more accessible to a wider portion of the French population.

Junior European Affairs Minister Clément Beaune said: “We maybe need an application where you can show that you are either vaccinated, and protected, or that you’ve had a reliable negative PCR test or rapid antigen test, as that would mean you are not a risk.”

The pass may also contain other medical information, but this has not yet been confirmed.

What would the health pass look like?

The health pass would be in digital form, most likely as a smartphone QR code which could be scanned before entry to a restaurant, for example.

The health passes may also be integrated into the TousAntiCovid app.

This would mean that the health pass would not only contain information about an individual’s health status but also keep a record of places they had visited.

This would facilitate contract tracing, and allow alerts to be sent to people who had been identified as contact cases.

For people without smartphones, the government could introduce digitised bracelets or cards containing radio-frequency identification chips, which would contain the same information.

What are the drawbacks to introducing health passes?

The concept of the pass raises questions over data privacy and protection, particularly as the pass could give access to sensitive medical information.

President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has said any pass introduced in Europe would have to respect the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) text.

To be legal in France, the pass must be non-discriminatory and accessible to all.

This was one of the issues with the concept of a vaccine pass, as people who had not yet had access to the vaccine, through no choice of their own, would be unable to use it.

Before being introduced in France, health passes would have to be approved by a parliamentary vote and passed into law.

Another issue is whether the health pass would become obligatory by default if it is required for access to a large range of places.

When would health passes be introduced?

No decision has been made yet as to whether health passes will definitely be introduced in France or the EU.

But on March 17, the European Commission will present the idea of a digital “green passport” containing information about vaccination and Covid tests results, which would allow bearers to travel between countries.

Ms von der Leyen said the green passport would “gradually allow Europeans to travel safely within the EU or outside, for work or tourism”.

Read more: Europe debates Covid health passports for travellers

The proposition will be presented at the next European Council meeting on March 25.

In France, at press conferences in early March both Prime Minister Jean Castex and government spokesperson Gabriel Attal mentioned the possibility of a “return to normal” in France by mid-April, suggesting current health restrictions could be reduced at this point.

Are other countries using health passes?

Comparable systems have been set up in some other countries.

Israel has introduced a “green passport” for people who have received two doses of the vaccine or who have already had Covid.

The green passport gives entry to restaurants with a reservation, sports clubs and sports and cultural events.

In Iceland - which is not in the EU but is in the Schengen zone - people who have been vaccinated have received certificates allowing them to travel, although these are not recognised internationally.

Denmark and Sweden are also planning to introduce electronic vaccination certificates to facilitate international travel.

These could also be used for access to sports and cultural events and, in Denmark, even restaurants.

In Estonia and Poland, people who can prove that they have been vaccinated no longer have to quarantine upon arrival. 

Airlines in France, Singapore, New Zealand and the UAE are also beginning to test similar concepts.

National carrier Air France is set to ask passengers for a digital health pass for flights from Paris to Guadeloupe and Martinique from March 11. Negative test results, necessary for travel, will be authenticated by a laboratory and registered on an app.

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