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UPDATE: What you need to know about the coronavirus crisis in Switzerland

As the number of coronavirus cases and associated deaths continue to rise in Switzerland here's all the latest info about the virus, how the government is responding and the essential advice for members of the public. (Paywall Free)

UPDATE: What you need to know about the coronavirus crisis in Switzerland
Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga delivers a speech at the opening of a decentralized session of the Swiss National Council. Photo: DENIS BALIBOUSE / POOL / AFP

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This article was updated on Friday, May 22nd. 

Main points and helpful links

What's the latest news on coronavirus in Switzerland?

As at Wednesday, May 22nd, Switzerland's confirmed cases of COVID-19 stand at 30,638.

The tally crossed the 30,000 mark on Friday, May 8th.

The fatality toll has risen to to 1,901 on the basis of reporting from the cantons. 

The first recorded death from the virus in Switzerland was on March 5th. 

This makes the small Alpine country of 8.5 million people one of the hardest-hit by the pandemic compared to its population size.

According to cantonal figures, 27,900 people have contracted the virus and healed – although as Patrick Mathys, Head of the Crisis Management and International Cooperation Section of FOPH, has said previously, Switzerland itself does not release official figures of those who healed from the virus. 

“With flu, we don't ask ourselves this. It's basically simple: either you die from the coronavirus or you recover.”

What should I do if I have coronavirus symptoms in Switzerland?

Vaud, Geneva and Ticino hardest hit by the virus

The death toll in Vaud is now 404, while there have been 344 fatalities in Ticino since the outbreak began.

The death toll in Vaud overtook that in Ticino on Saturday, April 18th, although the Italian-speaking canton remains the heaviest hit per capita. 

All but two Swiss cantons have recorded at least one fatality due to the virus. 

Geneva, with 275 deaths, has also been heavily hit by the virus.

Vaud has more than 5,300 confirmed infections from the virus, while the number in Geneva is above 4,900, making it the canton with the most confirmed infections on a per capita basis.

Ticino has just over 3,200 confirmed infections, although as reported by The Local Switzerland previously, the real number is likely to be much higher due to a comparative lack of testing in the canton.

What is the real count of coronavirus infections in Switzerland?

Things are improving in Ticino however, with the canton recording its first day without new infections or fatalities on Tuesday, May 12th since the outbreak began. 

Zurich, Switzerland’s most populous canton, has 3,500 infections – with 128 fatalities. 

The rate of infection and death has been much lower in the German-speaking parts of Switzerland than the rest of the country. 

Coronavirus in Switzerland: Why have the French and Italian-speaking regions been so hard hit?

The country has been trying to ramp up its testing, but Daniel Koch from the Swiss federal office of public health warned the supply was running out.

“There has been an increase in the number of tests in recent days that has pushed Switzerland's test supply to the limit,” he told reporters, saying there was a need for now to reserve testing for the most serious cases.

He said Switzerland was trying to procure more tests, but it was difficult since “the entire world is currently searching for tests”.


Lockdown measures started being wound back on April 27th, more on May 11th – and more to come on June 8th

“In light of epidemiological developments and the recommendations of scientists, the Federal Council has decided to relax measures to protect the population against the new coronavirus from April 27th,” the government said in a statement.

On April 27th, retail and cosmetic shops opened again. One major exception is Ticino, where the lockdown was extended until at least May 4th. 

This includes hairdressers, tattoo parlours, massage salons, cosmetic and makeup salons, hardware stores, garden centres and flower shops. 

Restrictions on hospitals and medical centres performing non-essential procedures will also be lifted, with doctors, dentists and physiotherapists again allowed to carry out general work which had been restricted by the coronavirus. 

These activities had been heavily restricted in order to lower the risk of coronavirus infection should people visit hospitals and medical care facilities. 

From May 11th, compulsory schools as well as all remaining shops and markets were permitted to open. 

Restaurants and pubs – as well as gyms and sporting facilities – were also allowed to open once more. 

Switzerland announces new wave of lockdown relaxations from May 11th

In order to monitor this, a contract tracing app will be rolled out across the country. 

Churches and places of worship may again open on May 28th

From June 8th, secondary schools, universities and vocational schools will be allowed to open. 

Libraries, museums, botanical gardens and zoos will be reopened at this time. 

Other restrictions will be relaxed, for example the ban on meeting in groups larger than five outside the house. 

As with the May 11th phase, the final decision on the June 8th phase will be made on May 27th – provided again there are no notable increases in infections. 

Borders again open from June 15th

From June 15th, Germany, France and Austria will open their borders with Switzerland – providing coronavirus infections remain under control. 

The announcement was made on Wednesday, May 13th. 

The relaxation only relates to the border controls put in place by Germany, France and Austria. 

It means that people will be able to leave Switzerland and enter Germany, France and Austria. But those in Germany, France and Austria will not be able to freely cross the border to Switzerland.

As yet, Switzerland has not indicated a concrete date when it will relax its border controls – although Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter has said she would hope to do so “in the coming weeks”. 

Swiss media reports that this is likely to take place at the same time the borders of EU neighbours Germany, France and Austria are opened on June 15th. 

READ: Coronavirus in Switzerland: German, French and Austrian borders to be reopened on June 15th

The border with Italy however looked likely to remain closed for a longer period of time.

“Of course, my department is also in contact with Italy. The fact that Italy is still missing has to do with the fact that the situation there is still different than in Germany, Austria or France. 

“Freedom of travel is still severely restricted within Italy.

“Austria is also facing the same situation (of opening borders to the north but not to Italy).”

On May 18th, Italy announced it would reopen its borders on June 5th – although Switzerland said this decision was made with no information provided to Swiss authorities. Keller-Sutter said she would look to confirm the nature of the opening in the coming days. 

Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga attends a press conference on March 16, 2020 in Bern to declares state of emergency over the spread of the new corona virus, COVID-19. AFP

READ ALSO: Fake news watch – No Switzerland's hospitals are not all overrun

New measures and restrictions

The Federal Council said on Friday, March 20th, it would make CHF42 billion available to cover for the economic impacts of the crisis. 

READ: Who can apply for coronavirus financial assistance in Switzerland?

An additional CHF20 million was added to this fund on April 6th

While money has been made available to self-employed people, parents are also eligible for compensation if they need to miss work to take care of their children due to coronavirus restrictions. 

The major requirements are that their children are above 12 and cannot be cared for through other means. 

Coronavirus: How parents in Switzerland can apply for lost income

The government also prohibited groups of more than five people – threatening fines of CHF100 – while also allowing for weekend parcel and grocery deliveries. 

The specifics of the economic package are laid out here

Switzerland on Wednesday, March 25th closed all of its land and air borders to everyone other than citizens, residents and cross-border workers. 

And the outlook?

After easings in April and May, restrictions are set to be further relaxed in June. 

Authorities have been careful to remind people not to panic, even if they feel symptoms. 

“In most cases, the disease is mild and harmless,” said Daniel Koch, head of the communicable diseases division at the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH).

READ ALSO: Can Switzerland handle the coronavirus epidemic?

No need to panic buy

In the early days of the pandemic, Swiss press and social media posted photos of empty shelves in the country's supermarkets. But is there really a reason to worry?

Supermarkets in certain locations had been partially emptied of certain non-perishable items, as panic-buying resulted in food shortages in some stores.

Canned and frozen products, toilet paper, flour, sugar, and soap were particularly scarce.

Migros spokesman Tristan Cerf even went on RTS television to offer his apologies to Swiss consumers. “It was an exceptional situation but there is currently no risk of a general shortage, and there is no need to build up large stocks”, he said.

“We will continue to deliver and fill the shelves”, Cerf added. “Our warehouses are fully stocked and distribution is assured”.

Why there's no reason to panic buy in Switzerland

And how does Switzerland compare to the rest of Europe?

READ ALSO: How the spread of coronavirus has hit life in Switzerland?

Switzerland insists it is prepared and points to three steps authorities are taking.

  • Testing for the new coronavirus has been intensified in people presenting flu-like symptoms.
  • The Infoline is staffed 24 hours daily in German, French, Italian and English.
  • Travellers and cross-border commuters are being provided with advice at the border and at airports on what to do if symptoms appear (shortness of breath, cough or high temperature).

What is the official advice for members of the public?

Switzerland's Federal Office for Public Health has said the risk of contracting coronavirus in the country is “moderate” but that may change depending on the evolution of the outbreak.

On Monday, authorities recommended Swiss residents avoid visiting nursing homes and taking public transport during peak times

Swiss health authorities also laid out a range of recommendations for avoiding the spread in the workplace, including adopting flexible working hours and working from home wherever possible. 

FOPH recommended six simple steps to avoid being infected with coronavirus — and prevent its spread to others. 

Each of the steps is illustrated with a video:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly.
  • Cough and sneeze into a paper tissue/handkerchief or the crook of your arm.
  • Stay at home if you have a high temperature and a cough.
  • Avoid shaking hands
  • Always call ahead before going to the doctors or hospital
  • Dispose of used tissues in a sealed bin

 

FOPH has also set up a multilingual hotline for questions about Covid-19. The number, which operates 24 hours a day, is +41 58 463 00 00.


People who experience symptoms such as shortness of breath and high fever should call this number immediately, FOPH says.

Authorities are also informing travellers at border crossings and airports about the risks posed by coronavirus.

What is coronavirus?

It's a respiratory illness which belongs to the same family as the common cold.

The outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan – which is an international transport hub – began at a fish market in late December.

According to the WHO, more than 80 percent of patients infected with the virus have mild symptoms and recover, while 14 percent develop severe diseases such as pneumonia. 

Around five percent of cases are considered critical, while only 2 percent prove fatal. The elderly and people with conditions that weaken their immune system are most likely to develop severe symptoms.
 
What are the symptoms?

The initial symptoms are not dissimilar to the common flu, as the virus belongs to the same family.

The symptoms include a cough, headache, fatigue, fever, aching and difficulty breathing.

COVID-19 is primarily spread through airborne contact or contact with contaminated objects.

Its incubation period is two to 14 days, with an average of seven days.

You can find the latest information about the coronavirus from the WHO.

In order for someone to catch the coronavirus, that person must spend more than 15 minutes within two metres of an infected person, Swiss health officials have said.

What should I do if I think I have COVID-19?

If you think you have the virus, do not go to hospital or your doctor's surgery.

Health authorities are worried about potentially infected people turning up at hospitals and passing on the virus.

You should alert health authorities and then self-isolate.

****

Hi,
 
The Local's mission is to give our readers all the information they need about what's happening in Switzerland. We rely on paying members to do that, but we have chosen not to put any of our articles about the coronavirus behind our hard paywall, to help keep all of our readers informed. We believe it is the right thing to do at this time.
 
This means that new or occasional readers can read articles for free. On urgent need-to-know articles and official advice about coronavirus, we are also dropping the paywall completely. That includes this article. 
 
We have received many comments from supportive readers asking how can they contribute. The best way is simply to sign up as a member. You can do that in just a few moments by clicking HERE.
 
We hope our paying members understand why we have chosen to make these articles about the coronavirus free for everyone, but if you have any questions, please let me know.
 
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CANNABIS

UPDATE: What are Switzerland’s rules for cannabis consumption?

Switzerland has a complicated set of rules for both medical and recreational cannabis consumption. Here's what you need to know.

UPDATE: What are Switzerland's rules for cannabis consumption?

Long prohibited and seen as a gateway drug with potentially dangerous impacts, countries across the globe have begun legalising cannabis in recent years. 

While the legalisation for medical use has been widespread, there have also been successful legalisation campaigns in several countries. 

The situation in Switzerland is also in flux and has been complicated by a range of recent changes.

Whether referred to as cannabis, marijuana or hemp, Switzerland’s Narcotics Act qualifies it as “a psychoactive substance”, with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being its most intoxicating ingredient.

The law specifies that “only THC is controlled under the Narcotics Act. Other active substances like cannabidiol (CBD) are not subject to the Narcotics Act as they do not have comparable psychoactive effects”.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Switzerland has legalised medical marijuana 

As of August 1st, the use of cannabis for medical purposes will be allowed in Switzerland

Patients who are medically prescribed the drug will no longer need to seek exceptional permission from the health ministry, as was the case prior to August 1st. 

Demand for cannabis-based treatments has risen sharply, with the health ministry issuing 3,000 exceptional authorisations in 2019.

The government “intends to facilitate access to cannabis for medical use for patients” and was therefore lifting the ban on its use for that purpose, it said in a statement.

The previous procedure involved “tedious administrative procedures”, said the ministry. “Sick people must be able to access these medicines without excessive bureaucracy.”

As of August 1st, “the decision as to whether a cannabis medicinal product is to be used therapeutically will be made by the doctor together with the patient” the government wrote

The sale and consumption of cannabis for non-medical purposes will remain prohibited.

READ MORE: Switzerland to lift ban on medical use cannabis

The new regulations could benefit thousands of people suffering from severe chronic pain, it added, including those with cancer and multiple sclerosis.

READ ALSO: Why Basel is about to become Switzerland’s marijuana capital

The law change will also mean that the cultivation, processing, manufacture and trade of cannabis for medical use will be subject to the Swissmedic regulatory authority, just as with other narcotics for medical use such as cocaine, methadone and morphine.

Legality of recreational cannabis is determined by the THC

THC of at least 1 percent is generally prohibited in Switzerland and use of products with this (or higher) content may be punishable by a 100-franc fine.

Of course, if someone is determined to smoke it, 100 francs may not be much a deterrent — but that’s a subject for another article.

“By contrast, possession of up to 10g of cannabis for personal use is not considered a criminal offence”, the law states, as long as it is not used by or sold to minors.

Italy's constitutional court has blocked the latest efforts to legalise cannabis.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

And, as with nearly everything else in decentralised Switzerland, “there are still considerable differences between cantons regarding implementation of the fixed penalty procedure”.

However, “cannabis flowers intended for smoking with a high proportion of cannabidiol (CBD) and less than 1 percent THC can be sold and purchased legally”, according to the legislation. 

That’s because, unlike the THC, cannabidiol “does not have a psychoactive effect”.

In other words, low-content THC and CBD will not give the “high” that recreational users seek.

When will Switzerland legalise recreational cannabis?

Currently, small amounts of recreational cannabis are tolerated in Switzerland.

“The decisive factor for classification as a banned drug is how much THC is contained in a cannabis product. If the THC content exceeds one per cent, the product is prohibited. Hashish is prohibited regardless of its THC content.”

As noted by the Swiss government, “If you are caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis (no more than 10 grams) for your own consumption, you will not be fined. In addition, if you supply (but do not sell) up to 10 grams to an adult, e.g. when sharing joints, you will not be fined.”

“If you are caught using cannabis, you may be given a fixed penalty fine of 100 francs.”

In June 2020, the National Council approved a plan to start cannabis trials for recreational use.

The experiments are to be carried out in Switzerland’s larger cities. Basel, Bern, Biel, Geneva and Zurich have all expressed interest in conducting the trials. 

The study seeks to find out how the market for cannabis works – and how to combat the black market. The social effects of legalisation will also be examined. 

At this point, no decisions have been made. However, Swiss authorities have set certain conditions in case recreational use is approved.

The National Council said if cannabis were to be legalised, it must be locally grown in Switzerland – and it must be organic. 

Health Minister Alain Berset noted that legalisation should benefit Swiss farmers even though “very few producers have experience in this area”.

READ MORE: Switzerland backs recreational cannabis trials – with one condition

Can you grow your own cannabis?

In truth, a number of people cultivate marijuana plants on their balconies or in their (secluded) gardens for their own personal use.

As it turns out, the law allows it, as long as it is a variety of the plant that does not have a narcotic effect — that is, the THC content must be less than 1 percent. 

By the same token, cannabis-based products with THC content of below 1 percent can be brought into Switzerland from abroad.

However, the import rules differ depending on the type of product  it is — flowers, seeds, extracts, oils, or other goods.

How much cannabis is consumed in Switzerland each year?

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but according to an article in Le Temps, which based its information on a medical study, about 100 tonnes are consumed in the country annually.

Cannabis remains the largest market in terms of volume: it represents 85 percent of drugs consumed in Switzerland, netting between 340, 000 and 500,000 francs per year.

READ MORE: Drugs and alcohol: Just how much do the Swiss consume?

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