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'We're taking a risk': Why is Switzerland easing Covid restrictions despite rising infections?

Helena Bachmann in Geneva
Helena Bachmann in Geneva - [email protected]
'We're taking a risk': Why is Switzerland easing Covid restrictions despite rising infections?
Spectators wearing protective face masks watch the Swiss National League ice hockey match between Lausanne HC and SCL Tigers in Lausanne, on October 1, 2020 as stadiums crowds return for the first time since the to COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus. - Switzerland is entering a "delicate phase" of its battle against Covid-19, the health minister Alain Berset urging the Swiss to stay on their guard as ice hockey arenas and football stadiums prepared to let in crowds of more than 1,000 people, the numbers limit on gatherings having expired at the end of September. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Swiss authorities announced the lifting of some coronavirus measures, even though the epidemiological situation in the country remains "fragile".


The Federal Council announced on Wednesday that starting on April 19th restaurants and bars will be allowed to open their outdoor seating areas again, along with cinemas and other leisure and sports facilities.

Yet, Health Minister Alain Berset acknowledged that the health situation in the country “remains fragile and has even worsened in recent weeks”. 

EXPLAINED: What are Switzerland’s upcoming coronavirus measures?

“We are taking a risk”, he conceded.

Authorities have previously said that to end the shutdown, 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, only one of these benchmarks is being met: the occupation of intensive care beds is just under 23 percent.  


On the other hand, the number of daily infections has increased twofold, rising from just over 1,000 a day in March to over 2,000 daily in April.

So the question is: why is the government forging ahead with the easing, given the far-from-ideal epidemiological situation?

The answer, according to health officials, is that the overall situation in Switzerland is relatively stable or, at least, not as bad as authorities thought it would be.

For instance, as the number of infections started to go up, “we feared there would be a sharp increase in hospitalisations”, said Virginie Masserey, the head of infection control section at the Federal Office of Public Health.

However, that spike didn’t happen and the situation in hospitals is "very manageable", Masserey noted.

The number of Covid-related deaths has not gone up either.

Also, the worst-case scenario imagined by the Federal Council in March — that the number of new infections would double every three to four weeks —  has not materialised.

“The number of cases has increased slowly but has not exploded”, Masserey said.

Other factors may have played a role as well in the decision to lift the restrictions.

Political and business groups have been calling on the authorities to step up the process of re-opening, arguing that the prolonged shutdown is not only bad for the economy, but also takes its toll on people’s mental health.

“The past few weeks have not been that bad. We haven't lost control”, Berset said in an interview with RTS public broadcaster.

He added that because of vaccinations and widespread testing, “we can take a cautious step".

READ MORE: ‘Walking a tightrope’: Swiss react to government lifting shutdown measures




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