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EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland rejects obligatory vaccinations for some professions

With the Delta variant sweeping through Switzerland and the number of coronavirus cases on the rise, several European countries are making Covid vaccinations mandatory in some professions. In Switzerland this is unlikely due to a variety of cultural and historical reasons.

EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland rejects obligatory vaccinations for some professions
To vaccinate or not to vaccinate — that is the question. Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP

The number of daily cases in Switzerland has exceeded the 1,000 mark on Tuesday for the first time since October 2020. At the same time, the pace of vaccinations is stagnating — with just over 48 percent of the population fully vaccinated, Switzerland lags behind neighbours Germany, Italy, Austria, and even Liechtenstein.

Swiss health officials say inoculations slowed down because of summer travel and hope the pace will pick up from September. But, as has been the case since the beginning of the campaign, vaccinations will remain voluntary, even for people in the so-called “frontline occupations” — those in close contact with vulnerable people, including the sick and the elderly.

While France will make vaccines mandatory for medical personnel from September 15th, Swiss authorities refuse to crank up pressure on healthcare workers — or anyone else, for that matter — preferring to continue their strategy of gentle persuasion.

Health Minister Alain Berset has repeatedly said that Covid vaccines, as all other inoculations, will remain voluntary.

Why is the Swiss government against making Covid vaccines mandatory?

Cultural and legal forces are at play here.

From the cultural point of view, Swiss people value highly their civil liberties, which include the constitutional right to “self-determination” — the freedom to choose one’s own destiny.  This is the very same right, by the way, that allows those living in Switzerland to decide the manner and time of their death — the famous (or infamous) assisted suicide.

This emphasis on independence and the importance of individual choice is especially prevalent among more conservative and traditional members of the population. The right-wing Swiss People’s Party, for instance, is adamantly opposed not only to compulsory vaccinations, but also to obligatory testing — that is, anything that is imposed rather than chosen freely.

As a Geneva daily, Le Temps, recently wrote in its editorial, “In Switzerland we will never see [president] Guy Parmelin haranguing the people and summoning them to be vaccinated. It is absolutely not in Swiss DNA. Here, we must take into account the different cantonal, cultural or societal sensitivities. The injunction does not work”.

READ MORE: Will unvaccinated people have to pay their own hospital costs in Switzerland?

But in an interview with Neue Zurcher Zeitung, Parmelin warned that individual liberty cannot encroach on the freedom of others. 

“The question arises as to whether the majority of the population who wants to be vaccinated must bear the consequences because a minority does not want it,” he said.

What does the law say?

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.”

Berset reiterated this stance many times by insisting that “Swiss law does not allow us to force someone to get vaccinated against their will”. 

On the legal level, the law on epidemics gives the Federal Council the possibility – after consulting with the cantons – to make vaccination compulsory for people at risk or “carrying out certain activities” in the event of an “extraordinary situation”.

The cantons also have this prerogative “provided that a serious danger is established”.

Finally, the cantonal hospitals can take measures as well to protect their patients. Unvaccinated caregivers would, for example, be transferred to a less exposed service or assigned to administrative tasks without contact with patients.

READ MORE: Why are Switzerland’s Covid rates on the rise once again?

What about job-based obligation rather than a general one?

Specifically, could Switzerland impose vaccination on health caregivers, the way France did? 

While authorities made it clear that the general vaccine mandate is out of the question, Berset said immunisation could be obligatory for people in certain jobs, such as healthcare professionals and others whose work brings them in close contact with the public.

However, Swiss health officials and politicians still seem to be torn between the independence of care givers and the protection of patients.

For instance, Geneva’s health minister Mauro Poggia, pointed out that Switzerland has so far relied on a strategy based on conviction and not on coercion, and “we must maintain this course”.

While no such decision can be made on the federal level, the way it was in France, the cantons and individual health care facilities do have this prerogative.

UPDATED: Can you be fired in Switzerland if you refuse the Covid-19 vaccine?

They can, for example, transfer unvaccinated caregivers to less “exposed” services or assign them to administrative tasks without contact with patients.

To date, professional associations have also abstained from telling their members point blank that they must get vaccinated — or else.

While the Swiss Association of Nurses (ASI) “strongly recommends” vaccination to its members, it does not support the introduction of an obligation.

“Our profession is based on science and the vaccine is effective in combating the pandemic,” said Roswitha Koch, care development manager at ASI.

“However, individual freedom and autonomy are cardinal values in our country, and healthcare professionals should not be treated any differently from the rest of the population. “

But Claire, a nurse at Vaud University Hospital (CHUV) doesn’t quite see it this way.

“If it were up to me, I’d make it compulsory. In this job, you can’t hide behind the freedom of choice. Lives of patients and our own health are at stake”, she told The Local.

She did add that most of her colleagues are not in favour of compulsory obligation or, for that matter, vaccines.

In the meantime, Poggia announced on Wednesday that the canton’s medical employees who refuse the vaccine will have to get frequent tests.

.”It is the responsibility of the institution not to leave vulnerable patients in doubt as to the potential dangers represented by the unvaccinated caregivers”, he said, adding that Geneva will be the first canton to impose this measure in Switzerland.”

READ MORE: Why Switzerland is not considering new measures despite rising Covid case numbers

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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.