France debates Covid health pass: How would it work?

Supporters say it could speed up the reopening of society while others have raised concerns over the ethical and logistical implications

4 March 2021
A health worker preparing a vaccine for vaccination. France debates Covid health pass with test, vaccine historyThe debate over a proposed "health pass" has restarted, and it could include information such as Covid tests and vaccinations
By Hannah Thompson

President Macron raised the idea of a “health pass” last week at an EU member video conference.

He was careful to say that a health pass would not be the same as a vaccination passport, and insisted that France would not make entry to some areas conditional on vaccination.

He said: “I sense that there is often a lot of confusion on this subject. This [pass] will not be solely linked to vaccination [and will not be] a ‘vaccine passport’.

“If we open some areas, we will not make access to them conditional upon vaccination, because we have not even opened vaccination to the youngest people [yet].”

Read more: President Macron raises idea of EU-wide Covid ‘health pass’

What would a health pass be?

Mr Macron said that it would be intended to hold a record of recent negative Covid tests, and would also show if the holder had been vaccinated.

He said: “We will ask that people register to help with the alert system [and] contact cases. We will also doubtlessly be able to integrate recent negative tests [into the system]. We will also be able to see if you have been vaccinated.”

The President also called for the EU to develop its own central system, and proposed that all member states introduce a similar pass, to “avoid each country developing its own system”.

The idea is that the health pass would act as a “common medical certificate”, rather than a simple proof of vaccination or negative test.

Who is suggesting it?

The debate has restarted this week after a defence council meeting yesterday at the Elysée.

Various options were discussed to combat Covid, and allow the country to re-open safely, even if the virus continues to circulate in future months.

The idea has been suggested by President Macron and debated by Health Minister Olivier Véran, among other ministers.

 

Why are they suggesting it?

Proponents say that it could speed up and facilitate the reopening of society, and “kick off a cycle of optimism” and a sense that life could go back to a “new normal” soon, a government source said.

This is especially true as more restrictions have been imposed in Nice and the Alpes-Maritimes, Dunkirk and the Nord, and more are expected to be announced for Pas-de-Calais later today.

A source close to the Elysée told newspaper Le Monde: “Emmanuel Macron wants to anticipate [the idea early]. The idea is to work on re-opening protocols of sites that are closed today, as soon as the health situation allows, and to bring together the ideas that different people have suggested in recent weeks.”

A health pass could allow and speed up the reopening of places such as theatres, cinemas, and museums, which are especially keen to reopen as soon as possible.

Frédéric Dabi, deputy general director of opinion pollster IFOP, told Le Monde: “Even if we are not quite there yet, the public is already talking about it spontaneously in opinion polls.

“The subject is being raised because for many it represents a way of getting back to the French way of life.”

When could it be introduced?

The idea is not definite yet, but the government is seeking to make a decision soon, by April, according to a source.

If it is introduced, it could come into force within four-to-six weeks, as Mr Macron said on Monday.

It comes as Mr Véran said the country was aiming to have vaccinated nine million people by the end of March, and pressure on hospitals is expected to drop as the more vulnerable and at-risk people receive the jab.

What are the implications or objections?

The government has not yet made a decision, and no consensus yet appears to have been reached.

Mr Véran this week said: “The time has not come to have a health pass in our country, or in Europe [yet], but we must ask ourselves good questions and move forward.”

But while support for the idea of a health pass to travel abroad is relatively high among people in France (a recent Odoxa poll put this at 59%), this is not the case for its use in daily life in France itself.

Read more: Vaccine passports: France in favour as jab support rises

Some are opposed to the idea of a health pass, when vaccination has not been made mandatory in the country, and others have questioned how it will be enforced.

One MP said: “We all have reservations about the way it will be put in place. How to enforce people to show a pass? Whose responsibility is it? Restaurateurs do not want to become the police.”

Junior digital minister, Cédric O, has suggested some ways that the pass could be introduced digitally, including creating a QR code that users can scan within the TousAntiCovid app, to make it easier to trace contacts.

The app could then also show if someone has had a negative test, or been vaccinated.

Yet, Mr Véran has appeared relatively reticent. He has said: “First, there is the technical challenge: on what platform? TousAntiCovid? Then, there is the health challenge. What status? Will it be a blood test? What is a complete vaccination?”

And the health minister has called the debate a “political and ethical challenge”. He said: “What do we do for people who have not been vaccinated, and who cannot be vaccinated?”

Read more: Covid-19 France: Could places refuse unvaccinated people?

Some have criticised the government for “only thinking in terms of efficiency and pragmatism”, rather than the ethical issues.

Aurélien Taché, MP for Val-d’Oise, said: “The fact that we are not asking more questions about this from an ethical point of view says a lot about the post-democratic period we find ourselves in.”

Some critics have said that the introduction of such a pass would amount to an attack on civil liberties and effectively make vaccination “mandatory” without formally requiring it.

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