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VACCINATION

Will Switzerland end its shutdown on Monday?

Swiss authorities will announce on Friday whether current restrictions will be lifted on March 22nd or stay in place longer.

Will Switzerland end its shutdown on Monday?
Swiss restaurants may not re-open yet. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

The Federal Council set March 19th to decide if it will ease some of the current measures. They include the re-opening of outdoor restaurants and upping the limit for indoor gatherings from five to 10 people.

But there is some doubt now whether this will happen, as the number of daily cases reported on Wednesday jumped significantly to 1,858 from 1,438 the day before.

Originally these measures were supposed to be lifted on April 1st, but under pressure from cantons and economic groups, the government agreed to consider earlier re-openings if the epidemiological situation allows it.

In order for that to happen, a number of criteria has to be met: the infection positivity rate over 14 days should fall below 5 percent, occupancy of the intensive care units (ICU) by coronavirus patients should be below 25 percent, and the R-rate  — which indicates Covid’s ability to spread —must be below 1. 

Right now, the infection rate is 5.1 percent and the R-rate stands at 1,14 — meaning that the disease is spreading quickly.

However, the number for the occupancy of ICUs by Covid patients is below the threshold, at 17.6 percent.

This means that while more people are contaminated, fewer develop complications that require hospitalisations.

READ MORE: Rising infection rates put Switzerland’s March reopening plans in jeopardy

How likely is it that restrictions will be lifted on Monday?

“A broad or complete abandonment of restrictive measures to combat the spread of Covid-19 is associated with unacceptable risks”, according to the Conference of Cantonal Directors and Directors of Health (CDS).

The CDS, which is well aware of the epidemiological situation in their respective cantons,  also noted that the UK variant, more contagious and potentially at the origin of more serious complications, is now dominant, accounting for 80 percent of new infections detected in Switzerland.

If the re-opening happens too quickly, “the consequences would be serious in terms of health and the economy”, CDS said.

It also added that “the effects of the first deconfinement at the beginning of March are not yet fully perceptible. Small delay in the lifting of restrictive measures could be decisive in determining whether a strong third wave occurs or whether the spread of the virus can be slowed by vaccination”.

“Therefore, caution is still indicated”.

The Federal Council is consulting with cantonal health authorities before delivering its decision on Friday.

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COVID-19 ALERT

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.

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