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What to expect if you’re traveling in Switzerland over Easter

For the first time in over two years, Easter will be celebrated as it had been before Covid struck — with no masks or other restrictions. This is what you should expect if you are travelling to or from Switzerland from Friday onward.

What to expect if you’re traveling in Switzerland over Easter
For the first time in two years, Switzerland will enjoy a rule-free Easter. George Dolgikh @ Giftpundits.com / Pexels

You wouldn’t necessarily know it’s springtime when you look out the window, but Easter is just around the corner, even if the weather took a turn for the worse.  

And this year, at long last, you can celebrate this holiday in Switzerland as though it is 2019 all over again.

On April 1st, all Covid rules that had been put into place over the last two years were scrapped.

READ MORE: Switzerland to remove all Covid measures on Friday

Well, almost all rules

One that remains intact relates to travel

While tourists from the EU (as well as Swiss nationals and permanent residents returning to Switzerland from abroad) can enter the country without any further pandemic-related measures, entry restrictions for third-country nationals remain in force unchanged.

This means only fully vaccinated travellers or those who recovered from Covid can come to Switzerland from outside Europe.

The reason is because Switzerland doesn’t have its own entry rules but adheres to those in force in the Schengen area.

“As a Schengen-associated country, Switzerland therefore follows the recommendations of the EU and acts in association with the other Schengen states”, Anne Césard, a spokesperson for the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) told The Local on Thursday. 

You can check current travel regulations for your country here.

Covid? What Covid?

Even though the pandemic may not be forgotten anytime soon, the long-awaited transition back to normality is a welcome last step of the relaxation process that began on February 17th.

If you arrive in Switzerland on or after April 1st, it will be like Covid never happened.

This is what you can expect:

No Covid certificate

The certificate is no longer compulsory for accessing restaurants, bars, cultural activities, sports facilities, or any other indoor venues.

However, you may still need it to return to your own country.

No masks, anywhere

The obligation to wear masks in shops, on public transport, and all other indoor venues, has been dropped.

And while it is no longer mandatory in health establishments, individual healthcare facilities like hospitals or elderly care homes can require that staff and visitors wear a mask on their premises to protect vulnerable people.

This means you can go pretty much everywhere in Switzerland without a mask now.
 
No limit on private gatherings

Different rules were in place at different times during the pandemic in regards to the number of people allowed to get together.
But now there is no limit on how many people are authorised together in a group .
 
No isolation for infected individuals

Whether this is a sound decision or not is debatable. But as things stand, people who test positive to coronavirus are no longer required to isolate for five days — or at all, for that matter.

However, just because something is allowed doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be cautious, for your sake and others’.

If you happen to get infected while in Switzerland, you should avoid transmitting the virus to others. In case you don’t want to stay indoors, you should at least wear a mask when out and about. No obligation — just common sense and personal responsibility.

READ MORE: Reader question: Do I have to stay home if I catch Covid in Switzerland after April 1st?

Does it all mean Covid pandemic is finished in Switzerland from April 1st?

Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset said on Wednesday that “we are in a good situation… the bad phase of the crisis is over”.

Make of it what you will — and most people certainly want to believe this is true — but a number epidemiologists have said coronavirus is still circulating among the population and will continue to do so.

The latest strain, Omicron, and its sub-variant, the BA.2, are highly contagious but their symptoms are mild in most people.

 It is a view of most health experts that we should expect the resurgence and possibly new variants in the fall and throughout winter months, as had been the case in previous waves.

For now, however, life is back to normal, and Easter in Switzerland looks to be merry and bright (sorry, wrong holiday).

This is what you should know if you are travelling into or out of Switzerland

To state it simply and succinctly: expect crowds!

If you travel by air, you will find long queues and longer-than-average wait times. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 70,000 passengers are expected at Zurich airport on each of these days, and 50,000 are predicted to pass through Geneva.  

More people are also on the motorways.

Around the Gothard tunnel, “traffic should intensify strongly on Thursday”, according to motoring organisation Touring Club Suisse (TCS), which says bottlenecks should start early in the morning on the northern slope of the Alps.

The Federal Roads Office (ASTRA) also warns that Easter travellers “should expect to wait in queues, especially at the northern portal of the Gotthard road tunnel”

These routes will experience particularly heavy traffic and bottlenecks, according to ASTRA:

  • Spiez – Kandersteg
  • Gampel – Goppenstein
  • Brunnen – Flüelen
  • Raron – Brig 
  • Bellinzona – Locarno
  • Sections of various main roads in the Bernese Oberland, Graubünden and the Valais side valleys.

ASTRA published a map showing where most bottlenecks are expected.

Image: ASTRA

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EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

Borders within Europe's Schengen area are meant to be open but several countries have checks in place but are they legal and will they be forced to scrap them? Claudia Delpero explains the history and what's at stake.

EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

The European Court of Justice has recently said that checks introduced by Austria at the borders with Hungary and Slovenia during the refugee crisis of 2015 may not be compatible with EU law.

Austria has broken the rules of the Schengen area, where people can travel freely, by extending temporary controls beyond 6 months without a new “serious threat”.

But Austria is not the only European country having restored internal border checks for more than six months.

Which countries have controls in place and what does the EU Court decision mean for them? 

When can EU countries re-introduce border checks?

The Schengen area, taken from the name of the Luxembourgish town where the convention abolishing EU internal border controls was signed, includes 26 states: the EU countries except for Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia and Romania, plus Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland, which are not EU members.

The Schengen Borders Code sets the rules on when border controls are permitted. It says that checks can be temporarily restored where there is a “serious threat to public policy or internal security”, from the organisation of a major sport event to a terrorist attack such as those seen in Paris in November 2015.

However, these checks should be a “last resort” measure, should be limited to the period “strictly necessary” to respond to the threat and not last more than 6 months.

In exceptional circumstances, if the functioning of the entire Schengen area is at risk, EU governments can recommend that one or more countries reintroduce internal border controls for a maximum of two years. The state concerned can then continue to impose checks for another six months if a new threat emerges. 

Which countries keep border checks in place?

Countries reintroducing border controls have to notify the European Commission and other member states providing a reason for their decision. 

Based on the list of notifications, these countries currently have controls in place at least at some of their borders: 

Norway – until 11 November 2022 at ferry connections with Denmark, Germany and Sweden. These measures have been in place since 2015 due to terrorist threats or the arrival of people seeking international protection and have sometimes extended to all borders.

Austria – until November 2022 11th, since 2015, at land borders with Hungary and with Slovenia due to risks related to terrorism and organised crime and “the situation at the external EU borders”. 

Germany – until November 11th 2022, since November 12th 2021, at the land border with Austria “due to the situation at the external EU borders”.

Sweden – until November 11th 2022, since 2017, can concern all borders due to terrorist and public security threats and “shortcomings” at the EU external borders. 

Denmark – until November 11th 2022, since 2016, can concern all internal borders due to terrorist and organised criminality threats or migration.

France – until October 31st 2022 since 2015, due to terrorist threats and other events, including, since 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Estonia – until May 21st 2022, from April 22nd 2022, at the border with Latvia “to facilitate the entry and reception of people arriving from Ukraine”.

Norway, Austria, Germany and France also said they are operating checks on non-EU citizens. 

Can Schengen rules survive?

Despite the exceptional nature of these measures, there have been continuous disruptions to the free movement of people in the Schengen area in the past 15 years. 

Since 2006, there have been 332 notifications of border controls among Schengen countries, with increasing frequency from 2015. In addition, 17 countries unilaterally restored border controls at the start of the pandemic. 

In December 2021, the Commission proposed to reform the system to ensure that border controls remain an exception rather than becoming the norm. 

According to the proposals, countries should consider alternatives to border controls, such as police cooperation and targeted checks in border regions. 

When controls are restored, governments should take measures to limit their impacts on border areas, especially on the almost 1.7 million people who live in a Schengen state but work in another, and on the internal market, especially guaranteeing the transit of “essential” goods. 

Countries could also conclude bilateral agreements among themselves for the readmission of people crossing frontiers irregularly, the Commission suggested. 

If border controls have been in place for 6 months, any notification on their extension should include a risk assessment, and if restrictions are in place for 18 months, the Commission will have to evaluate their necessity. Temporary border controls should not exceed 2 years “unless for very specific circumstances,” the Commission added. 

At a press conference on April 27th, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said the EU Court ruling about Austria is in line with these proposals.

“What the court says is that member states have to comply with the time limit that is in the current legislation. Of course we can propose another time limit in the legislation… and the court also says that it’s necessary for member states, if they would like to prolong [the border controls] to really do the risk assessment on whether it’s really necessary… and that’s exactly what’s in our proposal on the Schengen Border Code.”

Criticism from organisations representing migrants

It is now for the European Parliament and EU Council to discuss and adopt the new rules.

A group of migration organisations, including Caritas Europe, the Danish Refugee Council, Oxfam International and the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) have raised concerns and called on the EU institutions to modify the Commission proposals.

In particular, they said, the “discretionary nature” of controls in border regions risk to “disproportionately target racialised communities” and “practically legitimise ethnic and racial profiling and expose people to institutional and police abuse.”

Research from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in 2021, the groups noted, shows that people from an ‘ethnic minority, Muslim, or not heterosexual’ are disproportionately affected by police stops.

The organisations also criticize the definition of people crossing borders irregularly as a threat and a new procedure to “transfer people apprehended… in the vicinity of the border area” to the authorities of the country where it is assumed they came from without any individual assessment. 

The article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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