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How Switzerland plans to tackle its vaccine scepticism problem

Switzerland’s expanding vaccination campaign has already encountered a degree of scepticism. Here’s what the government hopes to do about it.

How Switzerland plans to tackle its vaccine scepticism problem
Vaccine scepticism is as high as 40 percent in one Swiss canton. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

On Wednesday, June 23rd, Switzerland announced coronavirus measures would be relaxed far more significantly than had previously been thought. 

When making the announcement, Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset said while he acknowledged the plan was “quite brave”, Switzerland was relying on its vaccination rollout to prevent another wave of the virus to sweep across the country in autumn.

As of June 25th, 57 percent of the population have had at least one shot of the vaccine. 

Is vaccine scepticism Switzerland’s new ‘Röstigraben’?

Switzerland – a country with three large linguistic regions and 26 cantons who each would probably like to think of themselves as countries – is often marked by its differences more than its similarities.

The Röstigraben is a nickname given to the cultural divide between French and German-speaking Switzerland.

When it comes to vaccines, a new divide has opened up – that between the city and the country.

EXPLAINED: What exactly is ‘coronagraben’ in Switzerland?

A new study has found that rural cantons – particularly the smaller, central German-speaking cantons – are far more skeptical of the vaccine. 

Four out of ten residents of Obwalden said they will not get the vaccine, while 35 percent of Appenzeller Innerrhoden have the same opinion. 

Conversely, only 15 percent of people in the cities of Basel, Aarau, Geneva and Zurich said they are unwilling to be vaccinated. 

In total, 22 percent of Swiss have said they will not get the vaccine – which significantly impacts Switzerland’s chances of reaching ‘herd immunity’. 

There is also a gender and generation gap, with young women being particularly reluctant to get the jab. 

Among those over 75, only seven percent said they will not be vaccinated, compared to 30 percent of those under 45. 

How will Switzerland tackle its vaccination scepticism problem? 

Switzerland has repeatedly said the vaccine will not be made mandatory. 

Reader question: Will Switzerland make the coronavirus vaccine compulsory?

While Berset has frequently ruled out making the vaccine mandatory, even if the government wanted to it is unlikely such a measure would be allowed under Swiss law. 

The official website of the Swiss government’s coronavirus health plan says the following. 

“A general obligation to vaccinate the population is fundamentally ruled out by law. Through transparent and comprehensible information, every person should be able to decide freely whether they want to be vaccinated.”

That said, Berset has employed some trademark Swiss honest pragmatism in trying to encourage skeptics to get the jab. 

Berset told Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper people need to decide how they will come into contact with the virus, not if. 

“Everyone will come into contact with the virus eventually: either through a vaccination or through an infection.”

In addition to educational campaigns encouraging people to get the jab, Switzerland is winding out its immunity passport which will give vaccinated people certain privileges. 

While this has not yet been finalised, it will include allowing people to visit nightclubs, sporting events, discos and other venues, along with events such as weddings, with no cap on the amount of people that can attend. 

READ MORE: What are the new rules for events including weddings in Switzerland?

The cantons are also taking steps to make vaccination easier, for instance by kicking off ‘walk in’ vaccinations, and employing mobile vaccination teams to get the jabs out to as many people as possible. 

According to the NZZ, the government is currently considering more “creative” ways to get sceptical people vaccinated. 

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Covid boosters not available in Switzerland until autumn

The Swiss government will not make second Covid boosters available until autumn, saying those who are currently fully vaccinated face a low risk of contracting the virus.

Covid boosters not available in Switzerland until autumn

The Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) announced on Tuesday that second Covid booster shots for general population will be available in the fall, “when the risk for individuals and the burden on the healthcare system will be greatest”.

While Switzerland had a widespread booster shot campaign against Covid, the government has been reluctant to approve second boosters other than for those in vulnerable categories. 

Right now, those with a weakened immune system and people over the age of 80 are the only ones eligible. 

People not in those risk groups who want a second booster will need to pay out of pocket for the jab. 

This may be people who feel they are in a risk group but are not included in the government’s list, or those who need a booster for travelling abroad. 

People who are travelling to countries where proof of up-to-date immunisation is required but whose Covid certificates are no longer valid, can receive the fourth dose but upon request have to pay for the shot.

Previously, all Covid boosters have been free for Swiss citizens and residents, with the government electing to cover the costs. 

How much will a Covid booster for travel cost? 

While the federal government previously covered the costs of the vaccines, it is now up to individual vaccination centres to set a price for a second booster. 

A spokesperson from the FOPH told The Local on Wednesday that the cost tends to be around CHF60 across much of the country. 

Please keep in mind that this cost only relates to second booster shots for those not in vulnerable categories. For those wanting their first booster – or indeed their first or second shot of the vaccine – the government will continue to cover the costs.