Why are Switzerland’s French-speaking cantons rebelling against planned new Covid-19 restrictions?

In a joint statement, Switzerland’s French-speaking cantons expressed their disagreement with measures the federal government wants to implement before Christmas claiming they were "too strict".

Why are Switzerland's French-speaking cantons rebelling against planned new Covid-19 restrictions?
Restaurants should remain open, cantons say. Photo by AFP

Among the measures that federal authorities are proposing from December 12th is that restaurants, shops, markets and leisure facilities close at 7pm and remain shut on Sundays.

It also proposes that five people from two households can gather for private events, with exceptions for celebrations for up to 10 people from December 24th to 26th, and on December 31st for Christmas and New Year festivities.

Total closure is an option if the epidemiological situation does not improve rapidly, the Federal Council warned.

READ MORE: Covid-19: What new rules could Switzerland introduce on Saturday?

Infections are on the rise mainly in the Swiss-German cantons, but the proposed restrictions would be implemented throughout the country. 

They would also impact the Swiss-French cantons, where the number of infections has been dropping due to a raft of measures to curb the spread of coronavirus that had been taken in November. 

In response to the announced restrictions, cantonal officials from Neuchâtel, Fribourg, Vaud, Jura, Valais and Bern (which includes a French-speaking part) released a joint statement on Wednesday, saying they “disagree with the scope of the new arrangement and regret the way in which it has been prepared”.

The statement goes on to say that “the governments of French-speaking Switzerland cannot accept that such restrictive provisions be imposed on the cantons which have assumed their responsibilities, anticipated difficult and painful decisions for the population as well as for many sectors of society and the economy, publicly assumed these responsibilities, and released significant financial support”.

“The announcement was a shock”, Philippe Leuba, Vaud State Councilor in charge of the economy said in an interview with RTS public broadcaster.

“Federal Council does not distinguish between the cantons which have taken measures and those which have not”.

Another deputy from Vaud, Jérôme Christen, pointed out that “German-speaking cantons have not done their part, while the francophone regions have made significant sacrifices. This collective punishment is not acceptable.”

What modifications of the federal proposal do the French-speaking cantons want?

“While it is important that the population continue to exercise the utmost rigour in complying with the precautionary rules, it is also essential that they be able to have access, under strict conditions, to activities other than those mainly related to work and shopping”, the cantons added.

They are asking the Federal Council to revise their proposed measures as follows:

  • Up to 10 people should be allowed to meet in private settings on the weekend of December 19th and 20th. “Many people mobilised by the crisis, and in particular healthcare staff, will be working on December 24th, 25th and 26th, and will not be able to celebrate Christmas with their families”.
  • “While bars may be closed at 7 pm, restaurants should be open later, subject to strict compliance with health protection plans”.
  • No additional restrictions for Sundays and public holidays.
  • The possibility for theaters, cinemas and other cultural venues to accommodate up to 50 people, subject to strict compliance with health protection plans.
  • Cantons also added that if the federal government imposes further a restrictions, “it would have to allocate financial aid to the sectors concerned to cover the inevitable losses”.

Geneva is not part of the joint statement because cantonal officials were in session when the press release was drafted, RTS reported.

However, Health Minister Mauro Poggia told the media he is “angry” about the new restrictions.
because “they are disrespectful towards the French-speaking cantons which have assumed their health responsibilities “.

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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.