Switzerland to extend measures to fight Covid-19 ‘third wave’

Switzerland will extend the vast majority of its coronavirus measures, the government announced on Friday. Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset warned the country is facing a third wave of the virus.

Swiss Interior and health Minister Alain Berset.
Image: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

During the press conference, Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset told reporters “we must unfortunately continue to be patient”. 

Berset announced that all bar one of the lockdown measures in place since December would remain in effect until at least April 14th. 

The one measure relaxed by the Swiss government was the limit on the amount of people who can meet indoors. 

From March 22nd, private meetings of up to ten people are again allowed to take place – up from the current limit of five. 

However, the government declined to continue with the other changes it had planned from March 22nd, including opening restaurant terraces, allowing indoor sports and approving of small crowds for cultural and sporting events. 

READ MORE: What are Switzerland’s current coronavirus measures? 

Berset told the press conference that the current infection and hospitalisation rates are trending upwards, meaning that further lockdown loosening was impossible. 

“We have it under control at the moment – even if the numbers are currently increasing,” explains Berset.

Berset said it was particularly important to keep things under control before Easter, pointing out that Christmas gatherings acted as super spreader events in several countries including Ireland and Portugal. 

“We don’t want to prolong the crisis unnecessarily. In October we saw what a strong wave means. It then takes four to five months to come back from the high numbers. A year ago we were faced with a variant that was less contagious,” Berset said. 

He pointed out that most neighbouring European countries were adding restrictions, not lifting them, “which is something we are trying to avoid.”

“We are simply trying, for the third wave, to ensure we do not lose control,” he told a media conference.

“We have lost control twice, and we are trying to avoid doing so a third time.”

 ‘Risk of uncontrolled increase’ 

However, “the risk of an uncontrolled increase in case numbers is too great at the moment to allow for loosening in other areas,” the government said in a statement.

“The number of infections has in fact been growing since the end of February, and there are still too few people who have been vaccinated to rule out a strong increase in hospitalisations,” it said.

Switzerland, a country of 8.6 million people, has to date counted nearly 578,000 cases of the virus, and 9,455 deaths.

So far, 432,000 people in the wealthy Alpine country have been fully vaccinated. But the Swiss government voiced concern that the spread of new variants of Covid-19 could threaten the progress made through vaccination.

In its statement, it pointed to indications that such variants, which currently make up more than 80 percent of all new cases detected, “are not only much more contagious but also more deadly”.

Authorities also warned that three of the four criteria they had listed for lifting restrictions are not in place. In the past two weeks, there have been more than 200 positive tests for every 100,000 people, and the positive test rate is above five percent.

At the same time, the reproduction rate, indicating the number of people that one infected person will pass the virus to, stands at 1.14 — well above the 1.0 threshold. When the figure falls below 1 it means the epidemic is shrinking.

The rate of hospital beds occupied by Covid patients meanwhile remains relatively low, making it the only positive indicator. The government stressed that the main aim now is to “preserve the favourable conditions necessary for rolling out the vaccination campaign successfully in coming months.”

It said it hopes to be able to begin lifting restrictions after Easter, with an announcement expected on April 14.

What is the background to the meeting? 

At the end of February, Switzerland set March 19th as the crucial date in deciding whether a range of lockdown measures would be relaxed from Monday, March 22nd. 

They include the re-opening of outdoor restaurants and upping the limit for indoor gatherings from five to 10 people.

Originally these measures were supposed to be lifted on April 1st, but under pressure from cantons and economic groups, the government agreed to consider earlier re-openings if the epidemiological situation allows it.

What did the government consider in making the decision?

In order to relax the measures, a number of criteria has to be met: the infection positivity rate over 14 days should fall below 5 percent, occupancy of the intensive care units (ICU) by coronavirus patients should be below 25 percent, and the R-rate  — which indicates Covid’s ability to spread —must be below 1. 

As noted above, each of these thresholds were met, besides the hospital bed criteria. 

Member comments

  1. What a disaster the handling of the pandemic has been. The only solution: speed up the roll out of vaccines to the general population.

  2. Where is the vaccination program? The US is about to hit 100 million. The UK is now over 50% of the population vaccinated. I don’t mind being patient, Mr Berset, so long as there is a plan in place and it is communicated to the population.

    In Canton Vaud, where we have lived for more than 12 years, we have not received any form of correspondence from the state authorities as to when a vaccination programme for the general populous will be rolled out and when our family can expect to be vaccinated.

    I hate to say it, but more and more this is beginning to look like a bureaucratic fiasco.

  3. Unbelievable that such a globally respected Country such as Switzerland is seen by the rest of the world to be lagging so far behind in protecting its population from the COVID 19 virus. Does anyone in Mr Berset’s department have any communication and organisational skills?

  4. It is unbelievable that the vaccination programme is so slow. There is no regular communication on when, if ever, we can get vaccinated. The Swiss Medic is stubbornly refusing to approve Astra Zeneca which is being used to vaccinate millions around the world. The cantonal website is not updated for days on the progress in vaccination. It is extremely disappointing.

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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.