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EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland avoided adding French border regions to its quarantine list

Switzerland on Monday added several regions of France and Austria to its quarantine list, but avoided including border regions. Here’s why.

EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland avoided adding French border regions to its quarantine list
The river La Morge in Saint-Gingolph, a natural border between Switzerland and France. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Switzerland put in place a mandatory, ten-day quarantine on arrivals from certain ‘high-risk’ countries in early July. 

While until mid-September, none of these countries shared a border with Switzerland, rising infection rates in neighbouring France and Austria forced authorities to make a call they hadn't made with the dozens of other countries on the list. 

Authorities broke France and Austria up into regions, with Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset implying that border regions would not be placed on the list regardless of infection rates due to economic and social ties. 

READ: How Switzerland avoided a coronavirus 'catastrophe' by protecting cross-border workers 

The government said it was following the lead of other European nations that are already implementing “a region-based approach” to neighbouring countries.

“Taking a regional approach means that persons returning to Switzerland from risk areas will be required to go into quarantine, but not persons returning from regions on the Swiss border,” authorities said, adding that the decision takes “account of the close economic, social and cultural exchanges that take place in the border regions”.

Berset said the decision to avoid placing border areas under quarantine reflected the need to show 'pragmatism, proportionality, modesty' in decision making. 

'No intention of shutting down the economy'

Berset told a news conference Friday that the government had decided to place nine of 13 French regions, including Paris, on its at-risk list, as well as Vienna in neighbouring Austria.

“We have seen a number of new infections in France, which are today already higher that the numbers in March and April,” he said, stressing that “this is a situation to take seriously… We're trying to keep the pandemic under control.”

EXPLAINED: Which countries quarantine travellers from France?

At the same time, he said, the government had sought a “pragmatic” approach and thus exempted the border regions in France and other neighbouring countries from the order, set to take effect from Monday.

“The idea is to preserve life along the borders where people live and work,” he said, pointing to heavy cross-border trade, as well as the many people who live on one side of the border but work on the other.

To define a risk area, Switzerland has set a limit of more than 60 coronavirus infections per 100,000 inhabitants in the last 14 days.

In the nine French regions, as well as in Vienna, this number is exceeded, meeting the Swiss criteria for a risk country.

READ MORE: UPDATED: Everything you need to know about Switzerland's quarantine requirement

However, Berset said that regions of France and Austria bordering Switzerland will not be added to the list, as local economies depend on the cross-border workers.

That is especially the case in the Lake Geneva region, which relies heavily on over 125,000 frontier workers from France.

“We have no intention of letting entire swathes of our economy to shut down”, Antonio Hodgers, president of the Geneva Council of State told Tribune de Genéve. 

In Geneva, some 60 percent of the city's health workers live in France.

The government also added France’s overseas territories to the countries at risk, meaning that all travellers from those regions will have to self-quarantine as well.

'We are together, for better or worse'

President of the Geneva Council of State, Antonio Hodgers, welcomed the decision – saying it would ensure the region didn't suffer. 

“We are very satisfied with the device chosen because there will be no negative impact on our region” Hodgers told Le Temps

Jacques Gerber, Minister of the Economy and Health, agreed. 

“It is a pragmatic solution which makes it possible to keep the balance between the necessary health measures and the economic, cultural and social activity of our regions” he said. 

Hodgers said the decision was a reflection of the reality of the region's interconnected ties and that imposing a lockdown along an arbitrary border would be ineffective. 

“The French did not want to relive the suffering of this spring either. We are in the same living area, therefore in the same sanitary basin. We are together, for better or for worse, in a way.”

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COVID-19

OUTLOOK: Could Switzerland introduce Covid rules this autumn?

After several months of a relatively low number of coronavirus cases in Switzerland, the rate of infections rose by over 22 percent in a span of seven days this week. What measures are Swiss health officials planning to prevent a new wave?

OUTLOOK: Could Switzerland introduce Covid rules this autumn?

The Swiss government has said that “further waves of infections are to be expected in the fall/winter of 2022/2023″.

As in previous waves, “the main objective of managing the pandemic is to prevent an overload of the health system. It is currently difficult to predict the magnitude of the waves of infection and, therefore, the burden on the healthcare system”, it added.

According to current estimates, “it can be assumed that ordinary structures will be sufficient to manage the situation”.

However, unless new, deadly variants emerge in the near future, health officials  expect the new wave to be milder than the ones  that struck in the winter of 2020 and 2021.

There are several reasons for this optimism:

Higher immunity

Due to vaccinations and infections, “it is estimated that 97 percent of the Swiss population has been in contact with the virus”, which means that “immunity within the population is currently high”, authorities said.

Lighter course

This means that unlike the early Covid strains like Alpha and Delta, which were highly virulent, the latest dominant mutation — Omicron and its subvariants — while highly contagious, are also less dangerous for most people.

New vaccines

The new version of the Moderna vaccine, which should better target certain sub-variants of Omicron, will be rolled in Switzerland from October 10th.

Compared to the original vaccine, which was effective mostly against early strains and offered no protection against Omicron, “the new vaccine produces a stronger immune response against the Omicron variants BA.1 and BA.4/5″, according to the drug regulatory body, Swissmedic.

READ MORE: BREAKING: Switzerland approves new Covid-19 boosters

Is the government planning any specific measures this winter?

While the severity of the new wave is not yet known, authorities have made several ‘just-in-case’ provisions by, for instance, extending the Covid-19 law until June 2024.

This legislation, which was approved in a referendum in November 2021, allows the Federal Council to maintain and apply emergency measures that are necessary to manage the pandemic. Without the extension, ithe law would lapse in December of this year.

READ MORE: Covid-19 law: How Switzerland reacted to the referendum results

“No one wants to reactivate the Covid law. But after two years of the pandemic, we have understood that we must be ready”, said MP Mattea Meyer.

While no mask mandates or other restrictions are being discussed at this time, the re-activated legislation would allow the authorities to quickly introduce any measures they deem necessary, according to the evolution of the epidemiological situation.

More preparations from the cantons

As it would be up to the cantons to apply measures set by the federal government, some have asked that financing be made available in case regional hospitals have to again accommodate patients from other cantons.

They are also making sure enough intensive care beds are ready for Covid patients.

What about the Covid certificate and tracing?

Though it is no longer used in Switzerland, the certificate continues to be required abroad.

The government will ensure its international compatibility.

The legal basis for the SwissCovid tracking app will also remain in force and can be reactivated during the winter of 2023/2024, if necessary.

MPs are also debating possible rules to be enforced for cross-border workers in the event of border closures.

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