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COVID-19 RULES

ANALYSIS: Switzerland ends most Covid restrictions — but what’s next?

As expected, the Federal Council announced on Wednesday the near-total lifting of coronavirus measures from February 17th. This is what Switzerland should do to prevent another outbreak and protect people at risk.

ANALYSIS: Switzerland ends most Covid restrictions — but what’s next?
YES! The lifting of measures in Switzerland is a source of joy for many. Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

Federal authorities on Wednesday scrapped most pandemic rules that have been in force in one form or another since March 2020.

Q&A: Everything you need to know about Switzerland relaxing Covid measures

This includes the following: 

  • Covid certificate will no longer be compulsory in any establishment in Switzerland.
  • The mask will also no longer be required in stores, restaurants, offices and other venues. However, it remains compulsory in public transport and health establishments, but only until March 31st, as is the five-day isolation of positive people.
  •  The government continues to pay for Covid tests of people with symptoms and all antigen tests
  •  There are no longer any entry restrictions on Swiss territory.

READ MORE: Switzerland to scrap Covid certificate, most mask rules

“Today, we can see that the positive dynamic continues and the overload of hospitals seems unlikely because the immunity of the population is now very high”, Health Minister Alain Berset said during the press conference announcing the lifting of measures.

You can see the details of the announcement here.

Now that almost all the restrictions fell, what’s next for Switzerland?

Just because the rules have been lifted doesn’t mean the virus that has wreaked havoc for two years, infected nearly 2.7 million people in Switzerland, killed 12,591, and kept the healthcare system on high alert, poses no more risks.

Even Berset conceded that “the virus will not go away. It is unclear what impact it will have on society in the coming months”.

Health experts agree.

“It’s not over. The virus is still circulating widely throughout the world and is likely to generate new variants”, Didier Trono, infection specialist at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) , said in an interview with Watson.

“We have no idea what can happen in the future, so we must remain vigilant and make sure we don’t find ourselves in the same situation as last winter”, he added, referring to the second wave of pandemic to hit Switzerland after a lull during summer months.

What will Switzerland have to do to prevent massive resurgence of the pandemic?

Watching the evolution closely, rather than just throwing caution to the winds, is crucial, specialists say, as vigilance should allow scientists to tailor booster vaccinations to potentially problematic variants.

These are some of the measures Swiss epidemiologists and other health experts say are absolutely essential in keeping coronavirus and its various mutations from causing new major outbreaks.

Stronger surveillance system

In Switzerland, the Sentinella observation network monitors the evolution of influenza every winter, observing the evolution of the disease at the national level.

“This a proven system that’s been around for decades. The detection of the coronavirus has been integrated into it”, said Philippe Eggimann, president of the medical society of French-speaking Switzerland.

Sentinella must, however, be reinforced and expanded, both in terms of the number of  specialists in the network and the volume of situation reports it produces, Eggimann pointed out.

Continued testing

“We must continue to test symptomatic people to know what proportion of the population is infected”, Trono said.

Another important monitoring tool is continued sequencing of circulating viruses, he noted. This process involves laboratory analysis of the samples taken from positive people to determine the variant that infected them.

“It is extremely important to do this in order to know if a new variant against which we are not immune arises”, he noted.

For his part, Eggimann calls for better international cooperation among laboratories. “We must institutionalise the sharing of knowledge, as it is the best way to detect early the appearance of a variant or a wave.”

Monitoring immunity

According to Trono, “we do not know the duration or the spectrum of the protection offered by the vaccine and the infection”.

To find out the level of ‘herd’ immunity in Switzerland, he recommends testing blood from a sample of the population in order to measure the levels of neutralising antibodies against the different variants in circulation.

“It is something that we have done at times since the start of the pandemic, but it should be systematised”, Trono said.

All these measures are critical in keeping a close eye on the virus. “The infrastructure and the know-how are there, what is missing are the financial means”, Eggimann noted. “But it is infinitely cheaper than another confinement”.

What about people at risk?

“The lifting of measures is a relief for many, but it can create anxiety and insecurity for others”, Berset pointed out.

He was referring to vulnerable people with chronic illnesses or weakened immunity systems, who have a higher risk of being infected with Covid and developing complications.

According to the Federal Office of Public Health, around 621,000 people under 65 are considered “at risk”. When those over the age of 65 are added, the number is exponentially higher.

Their concerns relate primarily to the end of the mask-wearing obligation.

“As long as the number of cases remains so high, the mask should be maintained,” said Cancer League spokesperson Stefanie de Borba.

How can the most vulnerable be protected?

“Wearing a mask makes sense even for those who are healthy and this would help also those who need extra protection”, according to Britta Maurer, director of the Rheumatology and Immunology Clinic at the Inselspital in Bern.

But, she added “let’s not expect too much from those who are healthy”.

Sociologist Joël Berger confirms that the kind of solidarity that was observed during initial stages of the pandemic will not be easy to replicate now and it is unlikely that people will continue to wear masks if it is no longer compulsory.

“Cooperation exists when a personal concern is at stake. When it comes to protecting strangers, on the other hand, the commitment is likely to decline rapidly”, he said.

READ MORE: How Swiss airports are preparing for a return to pre-pandemic tourism

Member comments

  1. “let’s not expect too much from those who are healthy”

    Yeah, no kidding…I mean, who cares about those of us who are at risk, right? From what people tell me, it’s my own fault for having a chronic condition anyway, so, whatevs…

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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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