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COVID-19 CERTIFICATE

Is Switzerland delaying imposing new measures due to Covid referendum?

While Covid infections are skyrocketing across much of Europe, Switzerland has indicated there will be no additional measures. Some experts say the government is trying to avoid a backlash in the November 28th referendum.

A person votes in a referendum in Switzerland
Switzerland will go to the polls to vote on Covid measures including the Covid certificate on November 28th. Photo:FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

As German-speaking Europe locks down, Switzerland has promised no additional measures. 

Experts and Swiss media outlets have suggested this may be to do with the upcoming referendum in which citizens will vote on the country’s Covid laws – with the government not wanting to risk a protest vote. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

What is happening in Switzerland and the rest of Europe? 

On Friday, Austria announced it would re-enter a nationwide lockdown – including stay-at-home orders and the closure of bars and restaurants – while vaccination against Covid will become mandatory from February 2022. 

Key points: How will Austria’s new national lockdown work?

Several German states have recently put in place a range of tighter measures, including restricting bars and restaurants to the vaccinated and recovered, while Christmas markets have been cancelled. 

Further measures have been flagged, including requiring a Covid certificate in the workplace and on long-distance trains. 

READ MORE: Germany passes law reform for sweeping Covid measures

In contrast, Switzerland announced on Thursday that no further measures were currently under consideration, despite Covid cases hitting a record mark in 2021. 

Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset said he was concerned about rising infection rates but felt confident in the country’s 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 offers 90 percent protection against severe courses of the disease and you have to make use of it.”

What does this have to do with the referendum on November 28th?

Switzerland’s refusal to adopt even the most basic of tighter measures – such as requiring more accurate PCR tests for the Covid certificate or mandating the certificate be required in gondolas and ski lifts – has led some experts to ask if the government has the 28th of November in mind. 

As part of its famous direct democracy system, Switzerland will vote on November 28th on its Covid-19 laws, including the Covid certificate. 

READ MORE: What’s at stake in Switzerland’s Covid referendum on November 28th?

Those pushing the referendum claim the certificate requirement that is currently in place until at least January 24th, 2022, creates discrimination and division within society, implicitly forcing vaccination and “state access to our body”.

This is the second such vote on the topic, with a challenge to previous Covid measures being rejected at a June 7th referendum by 60 percent of the population. 

While the vote looks set to pass by a two-thirds majority – a higher majority than the previous vote – Swiss media has suggested the government may be delaying decisions on tighter measures until after the vote.  

Lukas Golder, political scientist and co-director of the GfS Bern institute, told Swiss news outlet 20 Minutes that the government may not want to jeopardise the referendum result. 

“It is quite possible that the Federal Council is currently exercising restraint because it wants to secure maximum support for the Covid-19 law,” Golder said. 

READ MORE: What are the Covid rules for Switzerland’s Christmas markets?

“If the Federal Council were to promise a partial lockdown or 2G, for example, some people might judge the certificate requirement differently.

Golder indicated that the government not only wanted to win a majority in the referendum, but also that a stronger result would give their actions a greater degree of legitimacy.  

“The higher the ‘yes’ (vote), the stronger signal the population is giving the federal government in favour of the current course and further steps in the pandemic.”

“However, the Federal Council could also lose yes votes due to its behaviour.”

Martin Bäumle, a national councillor with the Green Liberal Party, said the government was definitely stalling. 

“I am almost certain that the vote on the Covid Act is the main reason for the Federal Council’s wait-and-see tactic,” Bäumle told 20 Minutes. 

“He’s afraid that measures could change the mood.

“The government is acting like a car approaching a wall at high speed and hoping that someone will remove the wall before impact.”

He said the government was being irresponsible and would cause damage in the long term. 

“With every week that we wait, more stringent measures threaten.”

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

“I hope not”: Berset on whether the government is purposefully stalling

When asked if measures were being delayed due to the vote, Berset said on Wednesday “I hope not”. 

Daniel Kübler, a political scientist from the University of Zurich, says the figures show the situation in Switzerland is comparatively calmer and he doubted that the government had a secret plan to impose measures after the vote. 

“In my experience the Swiss government hasn’t been incredibly tactful so far in the pandemic.”

Is the government really stalling? 

Besides sharing a language, German-speaking Europe is connected by its similar rates of vaccination. 

As at November 19th, 70 percent of Germans have had at least one dose, while 68 percent of Austrians have had at least one jab. 

The figure in Switzerland is 67 percent. 

However, other metrics are not identical, such as Covid case rates and hospital capacity. 

While confirmed Covid cases are much higher in Austria than in Switzerland, this is in part due to testing. 

For instance, on November 11th Austria tested more than 725,000 people, whereas Switzerland tested just 40,129. 

One major reason for Switzerland not following Germany and Austria’s lead is hospital and ICU capacity. 

While hospitals are overloaded in some parts of Austria – and Germany has already begun transferring ICU patients from hard-hit areas – the ICU situation in Switzerland is relatively stable. 

There are twice as many people in ICUs in Germany than in Switzerland on a per capita basis, while the figure is 2.5 times higher in Austria. 

Four times as many people are dying from Covid in Austria than in Switzerland, with the figure in Switzerland half that of Germany. 

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COVID-19 CERTIFICATE

What will Switzerland do about the ‘millions’ of expiring Covid certificates?

In the coming months, millions of Covid certificates are set to expire in Switzerland. What will the government do about it?

What will Switzerland do about the ‘millions’ of expiring Covid certificates?

As certificates are valid for nine months after the second vaccine dose or a booster, “millions of Swiss Covid certificates will expire by autumn at the latest”, according to Swiss news outlet 20 Minutes.

As many Swiss received their most recent shot in late 2021, the nine-month period will soon be coming to an end. 

Although this is not a problem domestically as proof of vaccination is no longer required in Switzerland, it may pose issues for travel. 

Since many countries still require a vaccination certificate for entry, and as the second round of boosters is not yet available in Switzerland,  this means that a large number of people may not be able to travel abroad.

And while other countries have already started to administer second booster shots, Swiss health authorities are dragging their feet, not having even issued a recommendation for the fourth dose yet.

This worries some MPs, who are calling on the government to make second boosters available soonest possible.

“The past has shown that cantons are not always sufficiently prepared. Something like this mustn’t happen again”, said MP Fabian Molina, adding that anyone travelling abroad should be able to be re-vaccinated if they wish. 

Another deputy, Yvonne Feri, noted that the federal government and the cantons have to prepare to vaccinate again within a short period of time.

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

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