EXPLAINED: How does Switzerland’s mass testing scheme work?

Switzerland has introduced a free nationwide coronavirus testing programme for people without symptoms in an effort to prevent large-scale outbreaks.

EXPLAINED: How does Switzerland’s mass testing scheme work?
Switzerland has introduced free nationwide coronavirus testing programme. Photo by AFP

From January 28th, “the federal government pays for persons without symptoms to be tested so that those who are particularly vulnerable can be better protected and local outbreaks of infection can be contained early on”, authorities announced at the end of January.

Why is government introducing this mass testing scheme, which will cost about 1 billion francs?

It is one of the ways that authorities are using to rein in the spread of Covid, and especially of the new virus mutations, which are thought to be up to 70 percent more contagious than other known variants.

“It is believed that more than half of Covid-19 infections are transmitted by people who do not display symptoms and are unaware that they actually have the virus”, the government said.

The Health Ministry added that “by extending the testing strategy, the government hopes that local outbreaks of the virus, for example in schools, can be identified and contained at an early stage. This is particularly important in view of the fact that new, more infectious strains of the coronavirus are currently spreading in Switzerland”. 

READ MORE: Switzerland to introduce free nationwide coronavirus testing

How is this scheme different from the one already in place in Switzerland?

Currently the government pays for the tests only for people who have symptoms consistent with coronavirus infection: high fever, shortness of breath, dry cough, or sudden loss of the sense of smell or taste.

It also covers the cost of the test for people who have been informed by the SwissCovidApp or by contact tracing system of the cantonal medical service that they had been in contact with someone who tested positive.

But now you will be tested for free if: 

  • The cantonal health office or a doctor orders you to have a test as part of an outbreak investigation.
  • You are called in for a test by medical authorities to prevent a large-scale outbreak, for example in schools, ski areas, in certain regions, etc. 
  • You have a test to protect vulnerable people, for example before visiting a hospital or retirement or care home. In this case you will be invited for a test directly by the establishment in question.

What tests will not be paid by the government?

If you request to be tested yourself, the costs will not be covered either by the government or your health insurance.

For instance, if you need a test to travel abroad, or you want to be able to come out of the quarantine early, or you need the test to attend international conventions, fairs, sporting events, or other activities —in other words, for non-essential personal reasons — you will have to pay the cost yourself.

READ MORE: UPDATE: Which countries are currently on Switzerland's quarantine list?

The price of a PCR test is 168 francs, and a rapid antigen test costs 57.50 francs.

PCR test results are generally available within 24 to 48 hours, while rapid antigen tests yield a result within 15 to 20 minutes. PCR tests are considered to be more accurate than the antigen ones. Health officials will decide which type of test you should have if you are given one for free.

Where can I get tested?

Here’s a list of all the cantonal testing facilities.

These links also provide other Covid-related information for each canton. 

But you will probably be directed by a doctor or health officials to a testing centre nearest to your place of residence.

What should I do while waiting for the test results?

“Stay at home and avoid all contact with other people until the result of the test is available”, the government says. 

This means you must remain in your home or another suitable accommodation without going out or receiving guests, shopping for food or engaging in other outdoor activities.

In case the test turns out to be positive, you must isolate yourself from the rest of your family, which means staying in a separate room and eating your meals alone. Interaction with other members of your household must be avoided.

You will remain in isolation for 10 days and must not go out.

Swiss authorities say: “In the ideal case, the cantonal office will inform you when you can end your isolation. If you do not receive instructions, your isolation must last at least 10 days.”

However, if symptoms persist (apart from loss of taste or smell which can last for weeks) then it may be necessary to isolate for longer.

These are the full requirements for people in isolation in Switzerland. 

Member comments

  1. Your headline, “How will Ch’s mass testing scheme work” and the associated text is totally miss leading in suggesting that everyone can get a free Covid test. There are so many “ifs and Buts” that the text makes no sense. Journalism is about reporting fact clearly not just pumping out so called government hand outs. More interesting would be why the government is so slow to approve the Astrozeniker vaccine? Switzerland should be top of the leader board not languishing near the bottom. Do you not agree? Trevor Kilbey

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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.