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Will Switzerland lift Covid restrictions amid rising infections?

One month after the Federal Council lifted nearly all Covid-related restrictions, the number of new infections is on the rise in Switzerland, and more patients have been admitted to hospitals. Here’s what could happen next.

A nurse puts on protective gear in the Swiss canton of Neuchatel. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
A nurse puts on protective gear in the Swiss canton of Neuchatel. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

On February 16th, the government announced almost all measures in place at that time would be scrapped the following day.

The requirement to show the Covid certificate to access indoor venues fell, and masks were no longer required in most public places, except for public transport and health establishments.

Also, restrictions on private events and gatherings were dropped, as was the obligation to work from home.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What are Switzerland’s current Covid measures?

The remaining rules — the requirement to isolate in the event of a positive test and to wear masks on public transport and in healthcare facilities — are set to be dropped from April 1st “if the epidemiological situation continues to evolve as expected”, the Federal Council said.

The key phrase, “if the epidemiological situation continues to evolve as expected”, is not very precise; it is unclear whether it means that infection rates should decline significantly, or whether they should just not keep increasing.

One principal criterion set by the government is that the healthcare system must not be overwhelmed by coronavirus patients, rather than simply infection rates. 

What is the situation right now?

The number of new cases has risen drastically since the lifting of measures, exceeding 36,000 new reported infections on March 16th. That rate was just over 16,000 on February 16th, the day when relaxations were announced.

Since then, the numbers have been climbing steadily.

However, health experts said this evolution was not surprising, as “we know that Omicron is extremely contagious”, according to Didier Pittet, head of the infection prevention service at Geneva’s University Hospitals (HUG).

In fact, Pittet, pointed out that the rising infection rate “is not necessarily bad news because these contaminations contribute to building our immunity”.

READ MORE: ‘Not bad news’: Why Swiss experts are optimistic about rising Covid cases

One development to take into account is the emergence of two new variants.

A combination of Delta and Omicron that has been found in a number of chronic infections has given rise to a new name: Deltacron.

Deltacron: What do we know about this newcomer?

“There is currently no evidence that this mutation would spread quickly…and it can be assumed that the immunity level of the population is good, ” said Richard Neher, member of the Covid-19 Task Force.

Of more concern to epidemiologists is Omicron’s “little brother” known as BA.2, which is even more contagious but not more virulent than its big sibling, at least for vaccinated people.

However, it is not yet known how seriously the BA.2 sub-variant affects unvaccinated people.

Experts are particularly concerned about the increase in infections among people at risk, especially the elderly. “In people over 70, the number of current cases is higher than for the rest of the Omicron wave,” according to Urs Karrer, the Task Force’s vice-president.

“Their immune defences are weaker, which could lead to more hospitalisations.”

What is the situation in hospitals?

This is the most important metric for the authorities, the one that will influence their decision regarding the lifting of remaining measures.

The epidemic rebound is driving up daily hospitalisation numbers in Switzerland.

“The increase in the number of cases is most strongly affecting those over the age of 60, and there is a significant rise in the number of hospital admissions”, the Covid-19 Task Force pointed out in its latest report published on Tuesday.

Hospital admissions fell from 140 a day in early January to its lowest number on February 26th: 49 hospitalisations, according to data from the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH).

Since then, however, the curve has gone up again, but not enough to cause concerns about saturation  of healthcare facilities.

Right now, Covid patients occupy only 16 percent of ICU beds; however, there are significant regional differences.

The occupancy rate by Covid patients is only 8 percent in Fribourg, while it exceeds 33 percent in Valais, where only one intensive care bed is available in the entire canton. But as the situation is calmer in the other regions, transfers are possible from one ICU to another is case of need.

So will the authorities lift the remaining restrictions from April 1st?

The Federal Council has not yet indicated what the decision will be, even though three members — President Ignazio Cassis, Health Minister Alain Berset, and Minister of Economic Affairs Guy Parmelin — have all recently tested positive to coronavirus.

And Swiss media is reporting that an increasing number of MPs is also infected in the midst of the spring session of the parliament.

“The number of Covid cases literally exploded in the Federal Palace. In two years of the pandemic, never have so many MPs been confined at the same time”, reports Blick.

The newspaper added that “right-wing deputies are coughing the most”, which is a paradox of sorts as these MPs have been staunchly opposed to any Covid restrictions since the beginning of the pandemic.

It is reasonable to assume, however, that if the situation in hospitals doesn’t worsen dramatically in coming days, the remaining restrictions could be lifted, even if cases continue to climb.

Some epidemiologists are, however, warning against this move.

Marcel Salathé, an epidemiologist at the Federal Polytechnic Institute of Lausanne (EPFL), said that even though the mortality and hospitalisation rates are now low thanks to vaccination and collective immunity, the virus continues to spread so much that Covid-related deaths and hospital admissions will increase again.

As for Karrer, “I understand that people wanted a quick and complete opening, but many elements indicate that the pandemic will make an extra round in hospitals”.

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Switzerland to drop vaccine requirement for entry from Monday

More than two years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, travel to Switzerland is set to return to normal from May 2nd.

Switzerland to drop vaccine requirement for entry from Monday

Despite winding back all Covid measures domestically on April 1st, Switzerland still required visitors from non-European countries to be vaccinated against Covid. 

Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Migration said on Twitter late in late April that all remaining entry rules would be scrapped from Monday, May 2nd. 

What were the rules? 

Up until May 2nd, visitors from the EU/EFTA zone can enter Switzerland without needing to show a vaccination or a test. Those from outside the bloc however need to show either proof of vaccination or recovery, or fit into other exception categories, including being under 18. 

This created a somewhat contradictory situation where Switzerland has some of the most relaxed rules in Europe domestically, but a stricter entry framework than many of its neighbours. 

‘Travelcheck’: This tool shows you what you need to enter Switzerland

As a consequence, Swiss tourism authorities warned that travellers from outside Europe, particularly those from the United States, China, India and the United Kingdom, are taking their tourist dollars elsewhere. 

The Swiss Tourism Association STV submitted a formal request in March that the laws be changed, saying they had put Switzerland at a disadvantage. 

How do I know which rules apply?

One of the most important elements to consider with regard to Covid entry rules is that the country where you reside rather than your nationality is the most important aspect. 

Therefore, if you are an American living in France under the current rules, you can enter without showing proof of vaccination, as you are considered to be entering from France. 

With rules constantly changing and official sources sometimes slow to keep up, the best way to determine the rules which apply in your specific case is the Swiss government’s ‘Travelcheck’ website. 

This is available here. 

The site will ask you certain questions about your situation, although no personal details are required. 

You will then receive a tailored response with advice on your entry situation. 

An extensive set of FAQs is available on the Swiss government website here