EXPLAINED: How will Switzerland’s free coronavirus ‘self-testing’ scheme work?

Switzerland has announced a plan to give each resident five free coronavirus tests per month starting in mid-March. Here's what you need to know.

People line up outside a pharmacy offering free coronavirus testing.
Photo: Alex Halada/AFP

More up-to-date information about Switzerland’s free tests is available at the following link

From March 15th, each Swiss resident will be entitled to five free coronavirus tests per month. 

The free tests will be part of a gradual move towards reopening.

However, while the scheme is set to start within a week, the government has not yet approved the self-tests for public use. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

What has the government announced? 

From March 15th, each Swiss resident will be entitled to five free coronavirus ‘self-tests’ per month. 

The government confirmed this in a press release issued on Friday, March 5th

The Swiss government said citizens are encouraged to test themselves regularly – even when they do not have symptoms – to help prevent the spread of the virus. 

What kind of tests will be provided? 

When the policy is fully implemented, it will entitle each Swiss resident to five free tests per month. 

The free tests will be so-called ‘self tests’, which can be used at home. 

However, as at March 8th, these tests have not yet been approved by the government, due primarily to uncertainties about how effective they are among people without symptoms of the virus. 

Therefore, from March 15th until whenever these tests are approved, the government will cover the costs of rapid tests in pharmacies and at all testing centres. 

When the self-tests are finally approved, each Swiss resident will be entitled to five per month. 

Will cross-border workers also be entitled to free tests? 

Yes. This was explicitly confirmed by the Swiss government in the press release. 

With free tests for everyone, why can’t Switzerland relax coronavirus measures immediately? 

The testing scheme, which is voluntary, has been developed to help Switzerland move towards a gradual relaxation of coronavirus measures. 

Switzerland will decide on March 19th whether or not further lockdown loosening can take place from March 22nd. 

However, the government has been careful to remind people that the tests are not 100 percent accurate. 

“A negative test must not lead to false security and unreasonable behaviour,” said the government’s press release. 

How much will the plan cost? 

The cost of the testing strategy is expected to be approximately CHF1 billion in 2021. 

Has this plan been put into effect anywhere else? 

Yes. Austria has adopted a similar plan since early February, with tests free at pharmacies and at a number of testing centres across the country. 

Anyone wanting to visit a hairdresser or any other ‘body hugging service’ – i.e. cosmetic services or visiting tattoo parlours – must provide evidence of a negative test in order to do so. 

The Austrian government is currently developing a plan which would allow only people who have tested negative to visit bars, restaurants and events. The plan is expected to be put in place by the end of March. 

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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.