France’s vaccine passport worked – sort of

France has long been one of the most vaccine-sceptical nations on earth. As recently as last December, 60 per cent of the French population said they didn’t want to get jabbed against Covid-19, compared to 23 per cent in the UK. And yet, over the summer, France has become one of the most vaccinated countries in the world.

The acceleration of France’s vaccination campaign against the coronavirus is largely believed to be due to its controversial “health pass” policy. Between late July and early August, showing proof of immunisation or a negative Covid-19 test has become mandatory for people entering cinemas, museums, restaurants and bars, and for those using long-distance public transport. The move, announced on July 12 by French president Emmanuel Macron, took much of the country by surprise. In a bid to further encourage vaccinations, the government will soon be putting an end to free tests, unless prescribed by a doctor.

While similar “vaccine passport” measures were taken elsewhere in Europe around the same time, the impact has been particularly striking in France, both for the boost that they have given to vaccinations and for the backlash that they have sparked.

Over the week that followed Macron’s televised address, an unprecedented 3.7 million people booked their shots on Doctolib, France’s main medical online platform. The seven-day rolling average of daily doses skyrocketed from 565,000 on the eve of the announcement to almost 700,000 ten days later, according to Our World in Data, an online database.

France’s vaccination rate has now caught up with that of countries that had led it for months. Sixty-three per cent of its population has now completed the Covid vaccination cycle, just one point behind the United Kingdom. Between July and August, the share of French people having received at least one jab, currently at 73 per cent, overtook those of the US, Germany, Italy, Israel, and the UK. The milestone of 50 million people (out of a population of 67 million) with at least one dose is expected to be passed in days. Vaccinations have now slowed down, like in much of the Western world. But new vaccines remain among the highest in Europe, well above the UK’s.

“The health pass did its job,” says immunologist Alain Fischer, a top government advisor on France’s vaccination campaign. He estimates that four to five million people got jabbed as a result of the measure, “which helped make many people aware, especially among the younger public, of the benefits of the vaccination.”

According to French Health Ministry data shown on the Covidtracker website, the steepest rise in vaccination rates following the health pass announcement was registered among people between 18 and 50: young and middle-aged adults for whom the risk of developing serious Covid symptoms is lower, and who therefore used to have fewer personal incentives to get jabbed. In the 18-24 age bracket, the partially vaccinated rose from less than 50 per cent right before Macron’s speech, to over 86 per cent last week. “I was expecting the health pass to have an impact, but not this big,” says Fischer.

In other good news for the government, not only the French responded to the health pass mandate by seeking the shots; a 60-70 per cent majority also appears to genuinely approve of the policy, according to polls. “This is a good measure,” says Pierre Mbaye, a middle-aged engineer enjoying a pint of lager outside a bistro in southern Paris, on a muggy mid-September day. “It may be a little coercive, but defeating this pandemic is our collective duty.” At a cafe a few blocks down the road, a man in his early forties agrees: “I’m against curfews and confinements, but sign me up for the health pass, since it allows me to enjoy this coffee,” he says, pointing at his cup (he wouldn’t give his name because he is a civil servant and was on duty).