EXPLAINED: How Switzerland could end the coronavirus shutdown

Cantonal authorities, politicians, and business groups in Switzerland are stepping up pressure on the Federal Council to lift coronavirus restrictions as of March 1st due to the drop in the number of infections.

EXPLAINED: How Switzerland could end the coronavirus shutdown
Will restaurants re-open on March 1st? Photo by AFP

The restrictions that have been in place since January 18th, including the closure of bars, restaurants and non-essential businesses, along with the five-person limit on public and private gatherings and obligation to work from home whenever possible, were supposed to be lifted on February 28th. 

Health Minister Alain Berset initially indicated that restrictions would not only be extended, but that a range of tighter measures was also being considered to contain the spread of the more contagious forms of mutated viruses. 

But on Friday Berset indicated that the Federal Council hadn’t ruled out a relaxation of at least some of the existing measures, although he didn’t specify which ones were going to be eased.

It is, however, likely that the measures will be lifted gradually over time rather than all at once.

The Federal Council will announce its decision on February 17th.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Is a lockdown extension inevitable in Switzerland?

In the meantime, Economiesuisse, an umbrella organisation for Switzerland’s businesses, has published its four-step plan for ending the shutdown.

“Instead of fighting the pandemic with strict and sometimes arbitrary bans, the Federal Council should now make its decisions based on the vaccination coverage of the population”, the organisation said.

What are the four steps ?

The first step of this plan, to go into effect on March 1st, provides for the end of the limit of five people for gatherings in public spaces, in particular for “skating, cycling, or hiking”.

Restaurants should be allowed to reopen their outdoor spaces. Stores selling non-essential products must also be able to resume their activities and working from home should no longer be compulsory but recommended.

All these restrictions should be lifted “while increasing tracing capabilities and maintaining effective contact tracing at all times”, Economiesuisse said.

The second phase would begin when all the people in the high-risk category are vaccinated.

At this point, restaurants, as well as entertainment and recreational venues “must be able to re-open with appropriate protection concepts. All sporting activities and outdoor gatherings must also again be possible without restriction ”.

During this phase, intensive screening should be carried out to identify asymptomatic people at an early stage. “Economiesuisse relies on individual responsibility so that tests are carried out in schools, businesses and social institutions and that the population continues to be tested quickly in the event of suspicion”.

During the third phase, “anyone who wishes can be vaccinated and the risk of hospital overloading becomes unlikely.” The government “will no longer be able to impose restrictions on economic and personal freedoms on vaccinated persons”.

This would imply that large gatherings of people at concerts, sports events, and nightclubs should become possible.

Finally, during the fourth phase, as at least 60 percent of Switzerland’s population will develop collective immunity, “all remaining restrictions must be lifted: companies no longer have to implement protection plans and the wearing of masks should no longer be mandatory”.

However, screening should continue in order to identify possible mutations and avoid another outbreak. “Likewise, it must be possible to quickly reactivate extensive contact tracing capabilities and effective vaccines must be available at all times ”.

READ MORE: More than 500,000 people have now been vaccinated in Switzerland 

Are there any other scenarios being floated around for the lifting of restrictions?

Switzerland’s No Covid group is pushing for a tighter set of rules. 

This particular strategy is based on “rigorous containment and rigorous testing”. 

Under the plan, shutdowns are to be applied regionally – whether that be in municipalities, cities or cantons – and would only be lifted where the infection rate is 10 new infections over 14 days per 100,000 residents. 

Who besides Economiesuisse supports the lifting of restrictions from March 1st?

Cantonal authorities, along with many politicians, are stepping up pressure on the Federal Council to end the shutdown. 

Among them are the president of the Valais Council of State Christophe Darbellay, as well as health ministers of Geneva, Zug, Fribourg, and Neuchâtel. 

Some proponents of the re-opening are arguing that prolonged shutdown is not only bad for the economy, but also takes its toll on the people’s mental health. 

“We have to take into account what is happening from the morale point of view”, said Laurent Kurth, Neuchâtel deputy in charge of health. 

This is confirmed by a study showing that almost one in five people in Switzerland suffer from severe depression as a result of the pandemic. The percentage of people reporting stress spikes was 11 percent during the containment in April, and rose to nearly 20 percent percent during the second wave in November.

The “Swiss Corona Stress Study” reveals that the phenomenon is more marked among young people. Some 29 percent of 14-24 year olds and 21 percent of 25-34 year olds report severe depressive symptoms. By contrast, among those over 65, only 6 percent show symptoms of depression.

Along the linguistic regions, 22 percent of French speakers report severe depressive symptoms, compared with 16.9 percent of Swiss-Germans, and 16.1 percent of Ticino residents.





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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.