Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset has hit back at media outlets who blamed a shortage rather than science which led to the country’s two-month delay in making masks compulsory on public transport.
In an interview with Swiss TV on Tuesday, Berset said “the story sounds very good, but it's wrong.”
Berset disputed the claims, saying the government's advice was always to wear a mask.
Berset said lockdown relaxations, rather than the availability of masks, led to the new compulsory requirement on July 6th.
“We communicated from the start that the mask is useful so that we do not infect others. And that it is not easy to use the masks correctly and that they are only useful,” he said.
“When everything was closed, it made sense. But from the moment the measures were relaxed, it was always clear: in certain situations you should wear the mask.”
Switzerland made masks compulsory in public transport on July 6th, more than two months after neighbouring Austria, Germany, France and Italy had done so.
Switzerland’s neighbours also made masks compulsory in shops and other indoor areas, while this has happened in Switzerland only in a handful of cantons.
What did the Swiss government say back then?
From mid-March until the end of April, when the Covid-19 outbreak was at its worst, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) claimed that face masks were ineffective against the disease.
Even as masks became compulsory in neighbouring countries, and over 1,000 coronavirus cases were reported in Switzerland each day, the authorities still insisted masks were not needed to protect the population.
“Asking people to wear a mask permanently outside… doesn't work for Switzerland,” Swiss president Simonetta Sommaruga said at the time.
But according to the Sunday editions of Le Matin Dimanche and the SonntagsZeitung newspapers, the minutes from the meetings of the government's crisis units show that at the beginning of the outbreak Switzerland only had two and a half weeks of stocks available.
“At the height of the pandemic, the Federal Council's position on masks varied depending on the stock available in the country,” Le Matin Dimanche said.
The change in strategy happened at the end of April, when 90 million masks ordered by the army arrived in Switzerland.
“A week later, the FOPH advised the population to wear a mask when the physical distance of 1.5 metres couldn't be respected,” the newspaper reported.
They are also now obligatory in shops in cantons of Geneva, Vaud, and Jura, as well as at the Geneva airport.
And given the rising number of infections, the FOPH now says that the compulsory mask requirement should be extended to include all interiors.
The use of face masks has given rise to heated debate in many countries over the past months. The European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) has recommended use of face masks in environments where social distancing isn't possible, with its chief scientist saying the centre has become more convinced of their benefit as the pandemic has developed.
The World Health Organisation has also changed its recommendations on masks, advising that governments should encourage mask-wearing in environments where distancing is not possible, such as public transport or crowded indoor areas – even while stating that there is not much scientific evidence showing they prevent the spread of the disease.