France’s technology minister has blamed the poor take-up of the country’s Covid-19 contact alert app on “timing and culture” and says colleagues in government who failed to download it were being “very French”.
Cédric O, the minister for digital transition, said that using the app, StopCovid, was essential if the French wanted to avoid further restrictions.
Paris and several other cities have been put on red “maximum alert” after a rise in the spread of the virus in recent days. Bars in the capital have been forced to close for two weeks from Tuesday and restaurants will have to put in place new sanitary protocols to stay open.
Asked why only 2.2 million French people had downloaded the StopCovid app since its launch in June – compared with the UK, where more than 12.4 million people downloaded NHS-Covid-19 in four days after its launch last week, and Germany, where 20 million people have downloaded a contact application – O said the main problem was timing.
“The UK application was launched at a time where everyone feared a new lockdown, while StopCovid was launched when everyone thought it [the virus] was finished. If we launched now it would be different,” O told a group of foreign journalists including the Guardian.
He admitted there had been “resistance” in France to the application.
O remained diplomatic when asked if the admission by several government ministers that they had not downloaded the application had made it harder to convince the population to do so.
Two weeks ago, the prime minister, Jean Castex, revealed he did not have StopCovid on his phone. It was later discovered the justice minister, foreign affairs minister and citizenship minister had all failed to download the application.
O, who last week admitted he was surprised to learn this, said the ministers were “being very French” . Asked if his government colleagues had subsequently downloaded the application, he said: “I think so.”
“The question isn’t whether it is useful or not. It will only be useful if lots of people download it. At a time when we are considering closing bars and restaurants. These are exactly the places where StopCovid would be useful. We have to slow the propagation of the virus and we have to make our population, which is very Latin and reticent understand that it is a tool to keep their freedom. We have to work on making the population understand that it is in everyone’s interest,” he said.
“I was in Sicily recently and I noticed the Italians are far better organised than us. I had to give my name and telephone number when I went into a restaurant. In France it’s much more complicated.”
O suggested many people in France were preoccupied by “unjustified fears” stoked by what he described as “fake news reports” that the application was data harvesting.
“It’s a question of education. People don’t understand what use it serves.”
The Anglo-Welsh NHS Covid-19 app is based on technology, linked to Apple and Google, guaranteeing decentralised management of users’ personal data. StopCovid, developed by a French research institute, relies on a central server.
O also said France was pushing ahead with launching 5G across the country despite ongoing controversy about the new network.
“Twelve countries have already launched 5G and France is committed to doing so,” he said.
“As the president has said, we’re not going back to the age of oil lamps. It is a major element for the development of the economy and is important for the environment. Not moving to 5G would be madness. People have to accept this position.”