EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland is unlikely to lift restrictions quickly even if virus spread improves

The Covid-19 situation in Switzerland has improved since the beginning of the year. But that doesn't mean the government could soon relax the shutdown measures currently in place.

EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland is unlikely to lift restrictions quickly even if virus spread improves
Switzerland's shutdown measures won't be lifted prematurely, Berset said. Photo by AFP

Switzerland ordered the closing of all non-essential businesses from January 18th in an attempt to curb the spread of the new coronavirus variants from the UK and South Africa that were detected in the country before Christmas.

It also made working from home compulsory in most cases, and limited the number of people allowed to meet in public and private to five individuals.

These new rules were an addition to restrictions already implemented on December 18th, which shut down all restaurants and bars, as well as sports, cultural and leisure facilities.

The measures were supposed to be in effect until January 22nd, but the Federal Council decided to extend them until the end of February.

What is different now?

When the government mandated the first set of restrictions, Switzerland’s rate of infections was just over 890 per 100,000 inhabitants, the rate of hospitalisations was 35 /100,000, and the rate of deaths was recorded at 18/100,000.

The R-rate — a measure of the speed at which the disease is spreading — was above 1, meaning that each infected person contaminates more than one person on average. In other words the spread of the virus was increasing.

However, figures published by the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) in the past 14 days paint a different picture.

The rate of infections has dropped to about 361 per 100,000, the rate of hospitalisations has gone down to 12.2/100,000, and for deaths the rate is 7.2/100,000.

The R-rate has dipped below 1 and now stands at 0.86.

Given the progress that has been made on the epidemiological front, is there a chance that the Federal Council might lift some of the restrictions before February 28th?

As things stand now, it seems unlikely.

First of all, officials have repeatedly said that even with the overall decrease of contaminations and deaths, the numbers are still too high.

Secondly, the new, highly contagious Covid variant is spreading quickly across Switzerland and the authorities want to keep it as contained as possible, at least until more people are vaccinated against the virus and develop immunity to it.

READ MORE: Covid-19: Which Swiss towns are hotspots for new virus variants? 

In a recent interview with SRF public broadcaster, Health Minister Alain Berset confirmed that the measures are in place to “allow us to have the third wave under control… to minimise the damage to the economy, society and health”.

“We’d rather do it now, with fewer major consequences, than later in a hurry with many more serious repercussions”, he added.

READ MORE: 'Variant is a real danger': Swiss health minister explains why new restrictions needed 

He added that the new variant “is a real danger. The numbers are exploding and we couldn't accept the consequences. It would also put the vaccination campaign at risk.”

But there is also another reason for the government’s reluctance to lift the restrictions too early: hindsight.

In October, while neighbouring countries were enforcing strict measures to stem the spread of the virus, things in Switzerland were relatively normal, but as the chart below shows infections rates can soon get out of hand.

(The chart shows how infections spiked in Switzerland at the end of October and then stayed high throughout December, well above those of neighbouring countries.)

Switzerland also waited three months longer than its neighbours to put in place a mask requirement on public transport – and a full six months before masks were required in indoor areas.

In December, Berset conceded that, looking back, authorities realised “we were too optimistic after the first wave ” and vowed not to repeat the same scenario. 

“If one makes mistakes, one thing is clear — they must be corrected as quickly as possible. The health of people has the highest priority”, he said.

If the epidemiological situation continues to improve, is it sure measures will be lifted on February 28th?

That’s the plan, but the final decision depends on whether the new variant if the virus can be contained and whether the public follows all the rules currently in place.

But “if that doesn’t work, we will have to step up the measures”, Berset said.


Member comments

  1. Does the government give some kind of economical support to the businesses that they have decided to shut down? The ski lifts can be open and bring in money, but the rest is closed. I guess I’m not the only one here thinking that health minister Berset’s decisions is unfair.

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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.