TousAntiCovid - how France's contact tracing tool and health pass became the most popular app in the country

France has been more successful than Canada in implementing a COVID-19 app. We extend our appreciation to Maia Foulis for bringing us this article that highlights the French experience with the app. 

French app TousAntiCovid (which loosely translates to "all against Covid") was launched by the French government in June 2020.

Initially called StopCovid, the app was created as a means of contact tracing. Individuals using the app could use it to declare a positive test, anonymously alerting those who may have been in contact with them to isolate (and, later on, get a Covid test).

But in those first few months, adoption rates were embarrassingly low.

Between June 2020 and October 2020, the StopCovid app had only been downloaded 2.7 million times. Even Prime Minister Jean Castex said that he hadn't downloaded it!

With so few people using it, its initial use as a grassroots contact tracing tool was, well, useless.

Adoption rates picked up between October 2020 and January 2021. Why? Because there was a strict lockdown - and then a curfew - introduced.

Unlike in Ontario, to circulate during lockdown French people were required to fill in a specific piece of paper (or multiple bits of paper) and carry their ID to be able to circulate. Police could stop and check your papers, and give out fines to those breaking the rules.

The app was updated around this time, and users could generate said papers and store them easily on their phones. It's also around January 2021 when the app started sharing Covid stats (not updated over the weekend - this is France after all).

In June 2021, France widely adopted location QR codes. This allowed for better contact tracing on the app.

Similar to Ontario, places like bars, restaurants or museums have a QR code at the entrance that visitors or clients are invited to scan before entering. This adds an additional layer to contact tracing.

So how exactly does contact tracing work with TousAntiCovid? When you download the app, you have to enable Bluetooth for it to work. You can switch it on within the app.

When two people with the app are in within a certain distance (1,5 metres) and for a certain amount of time (at least 15 mins), the app detects the closeness via Bluetooth, explains CNET. This "meeting" is then saved to the phone. If one of these people tests positive and declares it on the app within 15 days of "meeting", the other person is automatically alerted in the app.

According to Cédric O, Secretary of State (junior minister) for the Digital Economy, positive tests within the app are verified by a third party health provider.

Millions more French people downloaded the app, but downloads ultimately exploded in July 2021 when the French government decided to introduce a restrictive health pass.

To combat low vaccine rates in France, French President Emmanuel Macron announced on July 12., 2021, that individuals would be required to show a "passe sanitaire" (health pass) to access public events like concerts, gatherings, etc. In August, the health pass was extended to cafés, restaurants, bars, and long-distance trains (TGV). In recent months, the pass has been further extended to cover even more locations.

Though not without criticism (there have been regular demonstrations against the pass since August 2021), this was a game changer for vaccine rates in France.

(When you get vaccinated in France, a QR code is generated. Your doctor - or whoever it is giving you your vaccine dose - will do some computer magic and you receive your QR code a few hours later. When I got my third dose, my doctor actually generated it on the spot so I could directly scan the QR code with the app.)

It was also a game changer for the adoption of the TousAntiCovid app. Six months later, pretty much any person with a smartphone has it (for those without, you can simply print your QR code and show that to enter any location needing one).

It's been a huge success. A few weeks ago, the French government announced that TousAntiCovid was the most downloaded free app in France. Around 50 million people have it on their phones (for info, the population of France is around 67 million).

When I moved back to France a few months ago, I finally downloaded the app. As a French person, I can tell you that - at least in my experience - we've never been great with the tech stuff. We love our paperwork and we're slow to modernize. But I was pleasantly surprised by how easy to use and streamlined the actual thing was! With the app you can:

  • Access your QR codes
  • Be reminded when to get a booster jab done (and where to find a centre based on postcode)
  • See if you are close contact case (and if you are, where you can find a testing centre)
  • Scan a bar, restaurant, museum, etc. QR code
  • Declare a positive Covid test
  • Access any relevant paperwork needed to circulate in France
  • See any recent Covid news stories
  • See key Covid data for France, and your region (including case numbers, vaccine rates, deaths, circulation rates, etc.)

Not only do I have access to all the stuff I need to get around, I am also empowered with information on Covid that is easily accessible all in one place.

I do understand that some of my fellow French people may have privacy concerns, and the app apparently still has some issues with QR codes from other countries, but in the midst of this Omicron surge, the practicality of the app shouldn't be dismissed.

In Canada, with provinces taking the lead on Covid response, a nationwide one-stop-shop may be harder to implement. A Canada-wide contact tracing app does exist, but adoption rates have been low. And separate vaccine passes exist in each province. Canadians may not want to cumulate these apps.

In France, TousAntiCovid may become even more important in the future.

Like in Ontario, PCR tests are increasingly hard to come by (and usually only provided if prescribed by a doctor). This means that there is an increasing reliance on rapid antigen tests done in pharmacies or at home.

But unlike with an "official" test, how can the government and public health bodies track these positive cases?

You should do it through an online portal, which to be honest hasn't been clearly advertised in recently updated health guidelines.

As well as this, to alert fellow citizens, more and more French people are also declaring their positive tests on TousAntiCovid. Why? Because it's easy. The app is already on their phones, and they use it almost every day. It's become part and parcel of our daily lives. Almost two years later, it may finally become the contact tracing app it was initially conceived to be.