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

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

'We're taking a risk': Why is Switzerland easing Covid restrictions despite rising infections?
Switzerland has taken a "cautious" step toward re-opening. Photo by Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

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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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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