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Is Switzerland delaying imposing new measures due to Covid referendum?

While Covid infections are skyrocketing across much of Europe, Switzerland has indicated there will be no additional measures. Some experts say the government is trying to avoid a backlash in the November 28th referendum.

A person votes in a referendum in Switzerland
Switzerland will go to the polls to vote on Covid measures including the Covid certificate on November 28th. Photo:FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

As German-speaking Europe locks down, Switzerland has promised no additional measures. 

Experts and Swiss media outlets have suggested this may be to do with the upcoming referendum in which citizens will vote on the country’s Covid laws – with the government not wanting to risk a protest vote. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

What is happening in Switzerland and the rest of Europe? 

On Friday, Austria announced it would re-enter a nationwide lockdown – including stay-at-home orders and the closure of bars and restaurants – while vaccination against Covid will become mandatory from February 2022. 

Key points: How will Austria’s new national lockdown work?

Several German states have recently put in place a range of tighter measures, including restricting bars and restaurants to the vaccinated and recovered, while Christmas markets have been cancelled. 

Further measures have been flagged, including requiring a Covid certificate in the workplace and on long-distance trains. 

READ MORE: Germany passes law reform for sweeping Covid measures

In contrast, Switzerland announced on Thursday that no further measures were currently under consideration, despite Covid cases hitting a record mark in 2021. 

Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset said he was concerned about rising infection rates but felt confident in the country’s vaccination campaign. 

“We have very few deaths at the moment. We also notice that the vaccination protects very well. Maybe that would be the right moment again for those people who have not yet dared to take the step,” he said. 

“Again: the vaccination offers 90 percent protection against severe courses of the disease and you have to make use of it.”

What does this have to do with the referendum on November 28th?

Switzerland’s refusal to adopt even the most basic of tighter measures – such as requiring more accurate PCR tests for the Covid certificate or mandating the certificate be required in gondolas and ski lifts – has led some experts to ask if the government has the 28th of November in mind. 

As part of its famous direct democracy system, Switzerland will vote on November 28th on its Covid-19 laws, including the Covid certificate. 

READ MORE: What’s at stake in Switzerland’s Covid referendum on November 28th?

Those pushing the referendum claim the certificate requirement that is currently in place until at least January 24th, 2022, creates discrimination and division within society, implicitly forcing vaccination and “state access to our body”.

This is the second such vote on the topic, with a challenge to previous Covid measures being rejected at a June 7th referendum by 60 percent of the population. 

While the vote looks set to pass by a two-thirds majority – a higher majority than the previous vote – Swiss media has suggested the government may be delaying decisions on tighter measures until after the vote.  

Lukas Golder, political scientist and co-director of the GfS Bern institute, told Swiss news outlet 20 Minutes that the government may not want to jeopardise the referendum result. 

“It is quite possible that the Federal Council is currently exercising restraint because it wants to secure maximum support for the Covid-19 law,” Golder said. 

READ MORE: What are the Covid rules for Switzerland’s Christmas markets?

“If the Federal Council were to promise a partial lockdown or 2G, for example, some people might judge the certificate requirement differently.

Golder indicated that the government not only wanted to win a majority in the referendum, but also that a stronger result would give their actions a greater degree of legitimacy.  

“The higher the ‘yes’ (vote), the stronger signal the population is giving the federal government in favour of the current course and further steps in the pandemic.”

“However, the Federal Council could also lose yes votes due to its behaviour.”

Martin Bäumle, a national councillor with the Green Liberal Party, said the government was definitely stalling. 

“I am almost certain that the vote on the Covid Act is the main reason for the Federal Council’s wait-and-see tactic,” Bäumle told 20 Minutes. 

“He’s afraid that measures could change the mood.

“The government is acting like a car approaching a wall at high speed and hoping that someone will remove the wall before impact.”

He said the government was being irresponsible and would cause damage in the long term. 

“With every week that we wait, more stringent measures threaten.”

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

“I hope not”: Berset on whether the government is purposefully stalling

When asked if measures were being delayed due to the vote, Berset said on Wednesday “I hope not”. 

Daniel Kübler, a political scientist from the University of Zurich, says the figures show the situation in Switzerland is comparatively calmer and he doubted that the government had a secret plan to impose measures after the vote. 

“In my experience the Swiss government hasn’t been incredibly tactful so far in the pandemic.”

Is the government really stalling? 

Besides sharing a language, German-speaking Europe is connected by its similar rates of vaccination. 

As at November 19th, 70 percent of Germans have had at least one dose, while 68 percent of Austrians have had at least one jab. 

The figure in Switzerland is 67 percent. 

However, other metrics are not identical, such as Covid case rates and hospital capacity. 

While confirmed Covid cases are much higher in Austria than in Switzerland, this is in part due to testing. 

For instance, on November 11th Austria tested more than 725,000 people, whereas Switzerland tested just 40,129. 

One major reason for Switzerland not following Germany and Austria’s lead is hospital and ICU capacity. 

While hospitals are overloaded in some parts of Austria – and Germany has already begun transferring ICU patients from hard-hit areas – the ICU situation in Switzerland is relatively stable. 

There are twice as many people in ICUs in Germany than in Switzerland on a per capita basis, while the figure is 2.5 times higher in Austria. 

Four times as many people are dying from Covid in Austria than in Switzerland, with the figure in Switzerland half that of Germany. 

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‘Historic step’: What to know about Geneva’s plan to extend parental leave

Geneva residents have voted for a 24-week paid leave package for new parents — the first Swiss canton to do so.

‘Historic step’: What to know about Geneva's plan to extend parental leave

Nearly 58 percent of the canton’s voters on Sunday June 18th greenlighted the proposal put forward by the Green Liberal Party to grant new parents a paid leave that is six weeks longer than the current (cumulative) period allowed by the law (read more about this below).

“It is an immense joy, a historic progressive step,” Aurélien Barakat, president of the Geneva Green Liberals, said on social media after the results of the vote emerged. 

However, the new legislation must still be approved by the parliament during its autumn session, so the victory at the polls is still tentative at this point.

What would the new law provide for?

In short, it would give new parents in the canton — including homosexual couples and adoptive parents — more time at home with their baby.

Currently, Geneva mothers get 16 weeks of leave (versus 14 weeks provided for by federal law), while fathers benefit from two weeks — the same period as in other cantons.

Under the new law — should it be accepted by the parliament — new parents will benefit from six more weeks at home with their baby.

This leave can be taken either at the same time by both parents for a total of 24 weeks for the two, or one of the parents can grant two weeks of their own allowance to the other, by mutual agreement. In other words, this scheme allows some flexibility.

These additional weeks are to be financed by a joint contribution from employees and employers.

Not everyone, however, is happy about the vote’s results.

“With the approval of this constitutional provision, the purchasing power of the population will decline due to the increase in joint contributions,” toward the parental leave, the Geneva section of the right wing Swiss People’s Party (UDC) said in a statement

What is the situation elsewhere in the country?

Parental leave allowances in Switzerland are lagging behind many other European nations. 

The reason is that the country has a strong history of individual responsibility, which promotes the idea that the state (or employer) should not pay for people choosing to have children.

Mothers here are entitled to 14 weeks leave and fathers to two.

During the 14-week (or 98-day) leave of absence, mothers in Switzerland are entitled to be paid 80 percent of their salary, up to a maximum of 196 francs a day.

But while the paid maternity leave was established in Switzerland in 2005 — years later than in the EU — fathers had to wait much longer to get that same (though more time- limited) right.

That changed on September 27th, 2020, when 60 percent of Swiss voters decided in favour of a two-weeks paternity leave.

As far as compensation, fathers can receive a maximum of 2,744 Swiss francs during their two weeks of leave with the money to be paid under the state-run compensation scheme. 

READ ALSO: What parental leave are new parents entitled to in Switzerland?

All this shows why Geneva’s move is truly pioneering for Switzerland, although it is still far behind the benefits accorded to new parents in other countries — in France, for instance, new mothers are entitled to receive up to 26 weeks of leave, and in Sweden both parents can benefit from 480 days off.