‘It’s wrong’: Swiss Health Minister disputes ‘mask shortage’ claim

Switzerland’s Health Minister has disputed a claim that the country held back on implementing a mask requirement due to a nationwide shortage.

‘It’s wrong’: Swiss Health Minister disputes ‘mask shortage’ claim
Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

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.

READ MORE: UPDATE: Where in Switzerland are masks compulsory right now?

But the government didn't make masks mandatory until July 6th, when they became compulsory on all public transportation in Switzerland. 

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.


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Reader question: Can I put my Swiss health insurance on hold if I’m abroad?

Given how expensive health insurance premiums are in Switzerland, you may be tempted to suspend your policy while you are abroad. Is this possible?

Reader question: Can I put my Swiss health insurance on hold if I'm abroad?

Unlike the obligatory car insurance, which you can suspend temporarily by depositing your registration plates at the local motor vehicles office, rules pertaining to health insurance are much stricter.

As the Federal Office of Public Health explains it, “If you leave the country for a certain period to travel or study but do not take up residence abroad, you are still required to have [health] insurance in Switzerland”.

In other words, as long as you are a registered resident of Switzerland, regardless of your nationality or passport, you must keep your compulsory Swiss health insurance and pay your premiums. While you do this, you also remain covered against most medical emergencies while you travel.

However, rules are less stringent for supplemental health plans which can, in some cases, be put on hold, depending on the insurance provider, according to Switzerland’s Moneyland consumer website.

The only exception allowed for suspending the health insurance coverage is during a military or civil protection service which lasts more than 60 consecutive days.

“During these periods, the risks of illness and accident are covered by military insurance. Your health insurance provider will refund your premiums”, according to FOPH.

Under what circumstances can you cancel your Swiss health insurance?

Swiss law says you can cancel your insurance if you are moving abroad, either permanently for for a period exceeding three months.

If you do so, only claims for treatments given while you still lived in Switzerland will be paid by your insurance; any medical bills for treatment incurred after you officially leave will be denied.

These are the procedures for cancelling your compulsory health insurance if you leave the country under conditions mentioned above

To announce your departure abroad, you must send your insurance carrier a letter including your name, customer number or AVS/AHV number.

You must also include a certificate from your place of residence in Switzerland confirming that you have de-registered from your current address, as well as the date of your departure.

Note, however, that if your new destination is another Swiss community / canton, rather than a foreign country, your insurance can only be cancelled from the following calendar year and only if you present proof of having taken up a new policy with another company.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to register your address in Switzerland

You can find out more information about this process here

If you suspend your health insurance for less than six years, you can reactivate it at a later date with the same company when you return to Switzerland.

READ MORE : What you should know about your Swiss health insurance before you go abroad