Swiss authorities caught by surprise by the re-opening of Italy’s borders

Italy announced on Saturday that it would reopen its borders to tourists from the European Union on June 3rd. Swiss authorities were unaware of the plan.

Swiss authorities caught by surprise by the re-opening of Italy’s borders
Switzerland was not aware of Italy's plans to re-open the border. Photo by Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Swiss officials were caught by surprise by Italy’s announcement because Switzerland and its other neighbours, Germany, France, and Austria, agreed to lift travel restrictions only from June 15th. At the time of the agreement Italy was still in partial lockdown.

The re-opening “is a unilateral decision made by Italy, we were not informed of it”, the Swiss Minister of Justice and Police Karin Keller-Sutter said in an interview with the SRF radio station. 

She also said she is planning to meet with the Italian Minister of the Interior Luciana Lamorgese in the next few days to discuss the unexpected opening.

“Switzerland will decide independently whether it will allow people from Italy to enter at this time,” Keller-Sutter said.

READ MORE: LATEST: Italy to allow international travel from early June

She added that “it is also important to discuss this problem with the canton of Ticino, which has been strongly affected by the pandemic.”

Ticino president Norman Gobbi told RSI television that he is worried about possible consequences that an opening of the border could have on the epidemiological situation in the canton.

“The situation in Italy has calmed down, but it is still more delicate than in Switzerland, Austria or Germany,” Gobbi said. 

Ticino, which shares a wide border and close economic relationship with Italy, was among the cantons that were most heavily hit by the Covid-19 outbreak.

In fact, Ticino had Switzerland’s first coronavirus case in February — a man who was infected while in Milan. 

Nearly all of the early Covid-19 patients in Switzerland caught the virus in Italy or from someone who had travelled to Italy. For that reason, the border between Switzerland and Italy was the first to be closed, on March 11th. 

Since the closure, only a limited number of people have been permitted to enter Switzerland — mostly about 70,000 cross-border commuters from Italy who are employed in Ticino.

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Three scenarios: How Switzerland plans to fight a Covid resurgence

Swiss government has devised three contingency plans that could be implemented to fight a new outbreak. What are they?

Three scenarios: How Switzerland plans to fight a Covid resurgence
Authorities want to prevent overcrowded hospitals if new wave comes. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Although Switzerland relaxed a number of coronavirus rules from June 26th and 28th, “the pandemic is not over”, as Health Minister Alain Berset said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Berset said Switzerland should not become complacent, with last summer a warning against feeling that the battle is won. 

He added, however, that the new wave is unlikely to be as large as the previous ones due to the country’s vaccination campaign.

This situation leaves a degree of uncertainty for which the government wants to be prepared as well as possible, Berset noted.

The Federal Council established a “just-in-case” procedure on Wednesday for three possible scenarios that could take place in the autumn and winter. 

These plans focus mainly on the rapid detection of variants and the continuation of vaccination, testing, and tracing.

The best-case scenario: status quo

In this scenario, the number of cases remains at a low level, though small outbreaks are still possible.

The number of infections may increase slightly due to seasonal factors — the virus is known to spread slower in summer and faster in autumn and winter—  but does not place a significant burden on the health system.

If this happens, no measures beyond those already in place would be necessary.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: Is Switzerland lifting its Covid-19 restrictions too quickly?

Not so good: more contaminations

In this second scenario, there is an increase in the number of cases in autumn or winter.

There may be several reasons for this, for example the large proportion of unvaccinated people, seasonal effects — people tend to stay indoors together in cold weather, and contaminations are easier — or the appearance of new, more infectious variants.

This situation could overburden the health system and require the reintroduction of certain measures, such as the obligation to wear a mask outdoors.

Booster vaccinations may also be necessary.

The worst: new virus mutations

In scenario three, one or more new variants appear, against which the vaccine or the post-recovery immunity are less effective or no longer effective.

A new wave of pandemic emerges, requiring strong intervention by the public authorities and a new vaccination.

Which of the three scenarios is most likely to happen?

The government hasn’t said, but judging by the comments of health officials, the latter two are the strongest contenders.

Firstly, because the highly contagious Delta mutation, which is spreading quickly through many countries, is expected to be dominant in Switzerland within a few weeks.

It is expected that the virus will spread mostly to those who are not vaccinated and, to a lesser degree, to people who have only had one shot of the vaccine, according to Andreas Cerny, epidemiologist at the University of Bern

READ MORE: How Switzerland plans to contain the Delta variant

Another concern is related to the appearance of the new variants which could be as or possibly even more contagious than Delta and not as responsive to the current vaccines.

The government said the best chance of avoiding the second or third scenarios is to ensure people are vaccinated. 

“Widespread vaccination of the population is crucial to relieve the burden on the healthcare system and to manage the epidemic. A possible increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the autumn will largely depend on the proportion of the population that has been vaccinated,” the government wrote in a press statement.

The government has also indicating it is preparing for booster vaccinations to take place in 2022 and are encouraging cantons to keep their vaccine infrastructures in place.