Switzerland rules out making restaurants ‘vaccinated only’ despite Covid case record

The Swiss government on Thursday said it would not be following Germany and Austria’s lead of restricting bars, restaurants and events to the fully vaccinated and those recovered from the virus, despite a 2021 record for new infections.

Swiss health minister Alain Berset speaks in front of a Swiss flag
Swiss Interior and health Minister Alain Berset. Image: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset said at a media conference on Thursday afternoon that further measures were not yet being considered in Switzerland, despite recording the highest infection rates this year. 

No ‘2G’ rules – yet

Restricting indoor venues to the vaccinated and the fully recovered was not proportionate with the threat posed by the virus, Berset said on Wednesday. 

Covid-19 in Switzerland: Why number of deaths among the vaccinated is misinterpreted

“The situations in the regions are very different. That is why you have to ask yourself: Is it proportionate to tighten up everywhere, even if there are major differences. At the moment everything is organised in such a way that it works with the 3G rule,” adds Berset. 

3G refers to the German words for vaccinated, recovered and tested – geimpft/genesen/getestet – and has been used to describe the conditions required to take part in many activities in German-speaking countries. 

A 2G rule requires that people are either vaccinated or recovered from the virus to take part in certain activities (i.e. negative tests are insufficient). 

Lukas Engelberger said implementing a 2G rule off the table at present, despite similar measures being implemented in neighbouring Germany and Austria. 

“A 2G rule is currently not up for discussion. The discussions take place strictly within the framework of the 3G rule that is currently in force. We do not want to discuss a system change at the moment,”

Berset said the government was putting faith in its vaccination campaign. While infection rates are climbing in Switzerland, death rates remain low due to the impact of the vaccination campaign. 

“We have very few deaths at the moment. We also notice that the vaccination protects very well. Maybe that would be the right moment again for those people who have not yet dared to take the step,” he said. 

“Again: the vaccination protects 90 percent against severe disease and you have to make use of it.”

Switzerland officially approved booster vaccinations for people in high risk groups from Monday, November 15th. Booster jabs will be rolled out for the general public soon, with the end of November given as a tentative date. 

Covid booster vaccinations in Switzerland: What you need to know

Berset however indicated that tighter measures could be imposed in future depending on the pandemic situation. 

“We have been living in uncertain times for almost 21 months. We are currently seeing an increase in the number of cases, but this is not an explosion.”

“As a reminder: We have already had phases in which the number of cases doubled within four days. We are now at two weeks. But it can change quickly, and then of course new measures would also be taken. “

Highest case rate in 2021

With case rates having shot up since mid-October, the Swiss authorities fear an overload of hospital cases as the winter kicks in.

Last week, Covid-19 hospitalisations increased by a quarter, while deaths were up more than 80 percent to 53 fatalities. Intensive care units are 77 percent full, with 17 percent of the overall capacity taken up by Covid-19 patients.

Bern University epidemiologist Christian Althaus called for a return to working from home, free tests and greater mask-wearing indoors, given the surge in cases.

Any restrictions on the freedoms of vaccinated people must be justified, he told the Neue Zurcher Zeitung newspaper, adding: “We must not let unvaccinated people take society hostage.”

Althaus said that given the creeping vaccination rate — neighbours Germany, France and Italy all have higher rates — Switzerland could be in for a rough winter. “We are not out of the danger zone yet. Given the current situation, we could find ourselves once again in a critical situation by Christmas,” he said.

As part of its famous direct democracy system, Switzerland will vote on November 28 on its Covid-19 laws, including the Covid certificate for fully vaccinated, recovered or tested-negative people.

The pass facilitates international travel and entry to public events and indoor spaces such as restaurants and concert venues.

The landlocked European country, population 8.6 million, has recorded nearly 931,000 positive tests — with nearly 6,000 more added on Thursday — and 10,926 deaths during the pandemic.

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Reader question: When will Switzerland authorise second Covid booster shots?

Even as other countries have started to administer fourth doses of a Covid-19 vaccine and the infections are on the rise again, Swiss health authorities still haven’t rolled out second boosters. This is why, and what lies ahead.

Reader question: When will Switzerland authorise second Covid booster shots?

As The Local reported on Tuesday, coronavirus is circulating again in Switzerland and rates of contamination are expected to soar in the coming weeks.

In fact, over a million people in Switzerland could catch the virus this summer.

 “More than 80,000 new contaminations per week” are expected in the next two months, according to Tanja Stadler, the former head of the Covid-19 Task Force — much more than during the past two summers, when the rate of infections slowed down.

READ MORE: ‘Over a million people’ in Switzerland could be infected with Covid this summer

Data from the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) indicates that the upward trend is already underway. The number of new reported cases has been soaring in the past few weeks — from below 10,000 a week in mid-April and beginning of May, to 24,704 new cases in the past seven days.

These are officially registered contaminations, but as “most of infected people will not be tested, the number of confirmed cases will be smaller on paper than in reality”, Stadler pointed out.

Although nearly all cases in Switzerland (99 percent) are caused by Omicron and its sub-variants, which are more contagious but less severe that the original Covid viruses, “more vulnerable people are likely to end up in hospital, and long Covid cases are also likely to rise”, she said.

What is FOPH’s official stance on second boosters?

Health authorities are currently recommending them only for people in high-risk categories — that is, those with a very weak immune system.

“There is no need for the general public to receive an additional booster vaccination in the current situation. According to available data, people who are fully vaccinated or vaccinated and cured are still well protected against severe forms of COVID-19”, FOPH said on May 23rd.

There has been no change in strategy since then, despite the increasing infection rates.

However, authorities relented on one point: they now allow fourth doses to be administered to people whose Covid certificates have expired but who plan to travel to countries where up-to-date immunisations are required.

FOPH said these travellers can get “off-label” shots — meaning being vaccinated before the official authorisation to do so is issued — but these doses will not be free of charge.

“The price will be set by the cantons and the vaccination centres”, FOPH said, adding, however, that “second boosters for people with weakened immune systems will remain free”.

Why are Swiss health authorities dragging their feet in authorising second boosters?

As with the original vaccine rollout at the beginning of 2021, which took longer here than elsewhere, Swiss slowness may be due to the abundance of caution. For instance, drugs regulator Swissmedic “took longer than many countries to approve new vaccines”.

This time around, FOPH is taking its time to examine benefits of second boosters for general population (as opposed to at-risk groups).

Part of it may be the uncertainty prevailing over the efficacy of vaccines, which were conceived to combat the original early strains like Delta, not the variants, and sub-variants, that emerged later.

“The current vaccine does not provide clear protection against the Omicron”, according to Giuseppe Pantaleo, head of the immunology unit at Vaud university hospital (CHUV).

So when will Switzerland authorise second boosters?

Health officials said they will issue official recommendations “before the summer holidays”, which means shortly.

Two scenarios are currently  foreseen by FOPH: “It may be that an additional booster vaccination is recommended only for people over 65 and those suffering from certain chronic diseases, but it is also possible that it will be intended for the entire population”.

READ MORE: UPDATE: When will Switzerland roll out second Covid boosters?