During the press conference, Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset told reporters “we must unfortunately continue to be patient”.
Berset announced that all bar one of the lockdown measures in place since December would remain in effect until at least April 14th.
The one measure relaxed by the Swiss government was the limit on the amount of people who can meet indoors.
From March 22nd, private meetings of up to ten people are again allowed to take place – up from the current limit of five.
However, the government declined to continue with the other changes it had planned from March 22nd, including opening restaurant terraces, allowing indoor sports and approving of small crowds for cultural and sporting events.
Berset told the press conference that the current infection and hospitalisation rates are trending upwards, meaning that further lockdown loosening was impossible.
“We have it under control at the moment – even if the numbers are currently increasing,” explains Berset.
Berset said it was particularly important to keep things under control before Easter, pointing out that Christmas gatherings acted as super spreader events in several countries including Ireland and Portugal.
“We don’t want to prolong the crisis unnecessarily. In October we saw what a strong wave means. It then takes four to five months to come back from the high numbers. A year ago we were faced with a variant that was less contagious,” Berset said.
He pointed out that most neighbouring European countries were adding restrictions, not lifting them, “which is something we are trying to avoid.”
“We are simply trying, for the third wave, to ensure we do not lose control,” he told a media conference.
“We have lost control twice, and we are trying to avoid doing so a third time.”
‘Risk of uncontrolled increase’
However, “the risk of an uncontrolled increase in case numbers is too great at the moment to allow for loosening in other areas,” the government said in a statement.
“The number of infections has in fact been growing since the end of February, and there are still too few people who have been vaccinated to rule out a strong increase in hospitalisations,” it said.
Switzerland, a country of 8.6 million people, has to date counted nearly 578,000 cases of the virus, and 9,455 deaths.
So far, 432,000 people in the wealthy Alpine country have been fully vaccinated. But the Swiss government voiced concern that the spread of new variants of Covid-19 could threaten the progress made through vaccination.
In its statement, it pointed to indications that such variants, which currently make up more than 80 percent of all new cases detected, “are not only much more contagious but also more deadly”.
Authorities also warned that three of the four criteria they had listed for lifting restrictions are not in place. In the past two weeks, there have been more than 200 positive tests for every 100,000 people, and the positive test rate is above five percent.
At the same time, the reproduction rate, indicating the number of people that one infected person will pass the virus to, stands at 1.14 — well above the 1.0 threshold. When the figure falls below 1 it means the epidemic is shrinking.
The rate of hospital beds occupied by Covid patients meanwhile remains relatively low, making it the only positive indicator. The government stressed that the main aim now is to “preserve the favourable conditions necessary for rolling out the vaccination campaign successfully in coming months.”
It said it hopes to be able to begin lifting restrictions after Easter, with an announcement expected on April 14.
What is the background to the meeting?
At the end of February, Switzerland set March 19th as the crucial date in deciding whether a range of lockdown measures would be relaxed from Monday, March 22nd.
They include the re-opening of outdoor restaurants and upping the limit for indoor gatherings from five to 10 people.
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.
What did the government consider in making the decision?
In order to relax the measures, 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.
As noted above, each of these thresholds were met, besides the hospital bed criteria.