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‘We’re taking a risk’: Why is Switzerland easing Covid restrictions despite rising infections?

Swiss authorities announced the lifting of some coronavirus measures, even though the epidemiological situation in the country remains "fragile".

'We're taking a risk': Why is Switzerland easing Covid restrictions despite rising infections?
Switzerland has taken a "cautious" step toward re-opening. Photo by Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

The Federal Council announced on Wednesday that starting on April 19th restaurants and bars will be allowed to open their outdoor seating areas again, along with cinemas and other leisure and sports facilities.

Yet, Health Minister Alain Berset acknowledged that the health situation in the country “remains fragile and has even worsened in recent weeks”. 

EXPLAINED: What are Switzerland’s upcoming coronavirus measures?

“We are taking a risk”, he conceded.

Authorities have previously said that to end the shutdown, 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. 

Right now, only one of these benchmarks is being met: the occupation of intensive care beds is just under 23 percent.  

On the other hand, the number of daily infections has increased twofold, rising from just over 1,000 a day in March to over 2,000 daily in April.

So the question is: why is the government forging ahead with the easing, given the far-from-ideal epidemiological situation?

The answer, according to health officials, is that the overall situation in Switzerland is relatively stable or, at least, not as bad as authorities thought it would be.

For instance, as the number of infections started to go up, “we feared there would be a sharp increase in hospitalisations”, said Virginie Masserey, the head of infection control section at the Federal Office of Public Health.

However, that spike didn’t happen and the situation in hospitals is “very manageable”, Masserey noted.

The number of Covid-related deaths has not gone up either.

Also, the worst-case scenario imagined by the Federal Council in March — that the number of new infections would double every three to four weeks —  has not materialised.

“The number of cases has increased slowly but has not exploded”, Masserey said.

Other factors may have played a role as well in the decision to lift the restrictions.

Political and business groups have been calling on the authorities to step up the process of re-opening, arguing that the prolonged shutdown is not only bad for the economy, but also takes its toll on people’s mental health.

“The past few weeks have not been that bad. We haven’t lost control”, Berset said in an interview with RTS public broadcaster.

He added that because of vaccinations and widespread testing, “we can take a cautious step”.

READ MORE: ‘Walking a tightrope’: Swiss react to government lifting shutdown measures

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What to know about changes to free Covid testing in Switzerland

From January 2023, people in Switzerland will generally have to pay for Covid-19 tests. Here's a look at the changes.

What to know about changes to free Covid testing in Switzerland

What’s happening?

The Swiss Parliament says that from January 1st 2023, the costs of Covid-19 tests will no longer be paid for by the government. 

It means that anyone who wants a Covid test will have to pay for it themselves. 

However, Covid-19 tests ordered by a doctor will be met by health insurance costs “provided the test is required to determine any further medical action,” the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) said in a statement.

“Such costs will also, however, be subject to the insurance’s deductible and copayment provisions,” said the FOPH. The test result has no influence on the reimbursement.

Why are the rules changing?

Since the early days of the pandemic, the Swiss government has been covering the cost of Covid tests – at least most of the time.

But testing is expensive – the government spent 2.1 billion francs on tests in 2021, and 1.6 billion this year up to the start of December.

“The continuation of reimbursement for tests that benefit public health would have cost around CHF 100 million in the 1st quarter of 2023, according to estimates by the FOPH, based on a 20 to 30 percent higher test volume than in the past weeks,” the FOPH says.

However, keeping tests free of charge could also lead to additional costs in other areas – such as a potentially greater burden on doctors’ practices and hospitals, the FOPH said.

What’s the reaction?

For infection specialist Jan Fehr, the end of free testing is happening at a bad time.

At the moment, it is difficult to keep track of which respiratory tract infections are having a significant burden on the health system with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza and Covid all circulating at the same time, he told Swiss broadcaster SRF.

“Charging for corona tests from January will lead to even fewer people getting tested and is currently incomprehensible from an epidemiological point of view,” said Fehr.

Santésuisse, the industry association of Swiss health insurers, urged the state to take over the costs of tests again if the Covid situation worsens in future. 

What else should I know?

According to the FOPH, Covid tests are possible in the same facilities as before, such as doctors’ surgeries, pharmacies, hospitals, retirement and nursing homes, as well as in test centres.

Despite tests not being free of charge unless a doctor has ordered them, vaccinations against Covid-19 will continue to be free for people in Switzerland in 2023.