Switzerland has lifted Covid-19 restrictions too quickly, scientist says

Starting today, the state of emergency declared in mid-March is ending and life in Switzerland is almost back to normal. But this may hasten a new outbreak of coronavirus infections, health experts warn.

Switzerland has lifted Covid-19 restrictions too quickly, scientist says
Experts warn that if distances and other protective measures are no longer respected, the infection rate will go up again. Photo by AFP

The Federal Council announced on Friday the lifting of nearly all restrictions put in place on March 16th to combat the spread of Covid-19. 

Starting on June 22nd, groups of up to 1,000 people are allowed to gather together, provided that the tracing of contacts can be guaranteed. Masks will be mandatory during large events, but not on public transportation, where such protection is recommended but not compulsory.

Also, the distance between people in public spaces is reduced from two metres to 1.5 metres, and the midnight curfew for bars, restaurants, and nightclubs is lifted.

However, Matthias Egger, the head of the government’s Covid-19 Task Force, told Swiss media on Sunday that the new measures are “premature”. 

The average daily number of new infections has been below 30 since May 19th, but recent spikes have occurred in some regions. 

For instance, last week new pockets of infection were discovered in Valais as well as in Zug

“There is a risk that the number of cases will increase sharply in the near future, especially since there still isn’t a functioning surveillance system for the whole country and it is also unclear whether the tracing of contacts is well established”, Egger said,

READ MORE: Warnings in Switzerland of a 'second wave in summer' as coronavirus R-Rate rises above 1

According to Egger, the recent increase in the number of regional cases is likely due to the easing of lockdown restrictions that went into effect on May 11th. On that day, shops, markets, restaurants, gyms, museums, and libraries resumed their normal activities. 

It is still too early to know what the consequences of the further lifting of measures on May 28th, June 6th and June 15th might be, he added.

On those days Switzerland allowed more freedoms of movement, including the opening of borders with the Schengen zone countries. 

Earlier last week, Egger also warned that a second wave could hit Switzerland in the summer, rather than the oft-predicted autumn, if protection measures are not extended. 

Meanwhile, Switzerland’s tracing app, SwissCovid, will become available on June 26th. Authorities hope its use will curb the spread of the virus by tracking the infection chains. 

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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.