‘OH TO be in Switzerland, now that lockdown’s here!’ Apologies to Robert Browning, but it looks like my residence-of-choice is the only country in our Covid-benighted world that has dared to question the authority of the government to impose ever-increasing restrictions due to the pandemic.
The power of Swiss politicians to impose lockdown has clashed head-on with the rights of individual citizens. A referendum has just been triggered to strip the government of new legal powers to impose lockdowns and curtail public life. Under the country’s highly devolved direct democratic system, a petition of 86,000 signatures – well over the 50K required – will formally initiate a national vote to repeal the Covid-19 2020 Act.
Until late December 2020, the Federal Council was reluctant to extend the restrictions already imposed (mask wearing, seating restrictions, social distancing) – rules which were obediently if reluctantly observed; and there was no need to look over the shoulder in case of ‘Covid marshals’. The Swiss are, after all, great rule-takers: woe betide anyone in a flat using the communal laundry on someone else’s ‘day’, and don’t even think of buying a single goldfish. (These have to be acquired in welfare-friendly pairs, and destined for a tank of no less than 260 litres capacity.)
These rules are willingly observed by the population because they have been introduced with the will of the sovereign people, and are designed to ensure that the behaviour of one citizen does not harm or disadvantage another. Very civilised, in fact. Compare this with the UK government guidelines on what you can and can’t do during the national lockdown. These run to 11 pages of tightly-packed small print, and that’s not counting the 63 hot links explaining the detail, plus the final note, as at January 13, 2021, to ‘show all updates’. This compendium is beginning to rival the size of the UK Tax Guide, which is now reckoned to be twelve times longer than the King James Bible. (Compare this with my Swiss tax return which runs to all of four A4 pages.)
The Swiss authorities have now decided on the need for more stringent restrictions – the closure of restaurants and pubs, all non-essential retailing and places of entertainment, and mask-wearing in public. All this on top of the absolute ban on hand-shaking and greeting kisses, the absence of which has left many traditionalists almost neurotic.
But even in December, the Swiss weren’t taking this lying down. After a week of deprivation, the ski slopes were re-opened, a move which angered Alpine neighbours. But this was a move designed not to attract the German or even the Russian ski tourists but to placate the interests of local skiers, who are fit and healthy even in advanced years, and have been frequenting the slopes since they were three years old. They are still open, weather permitting, although it’s only one ‘household’ per gondola. Last week a small group of café owners defied the regulations for a day, indicative of opposition to any further restrictions. There were dire warnings about the economic consequences of shutting down over the Christmas period, even as infection numbers were rising.
An opinion poll has shown that 55 per cent of the Swiss are concerned about their individual freedoms being curtailed by government measures. Even an 11pm curfew in the hospitality trade was a step too far for a third of them. This forthcoming referendum seeks to undermine the legislation which underpins the any social and economic curbs. Even though it will not be heard until June, when the pandemic may well be in remission, the promoters are intent on ensuring that a legal precedent is not set for future emergencies.
This week the Federal Office of Public Health announced 3,000 new infections, a rate of 477 per 100,000. These numbers have been steadily falling, and are now down sharply from the November peak of 10,558 new cases daily. It remains to be seen whether the proposal of a national vote and falling infection numbers will influence the Swiss authorities to reconsider the guidelines beyond mid-February. But whatever the case, how reassuring that at least somewhere in the world, politicians do not have a free hand to imprison, impoverish and demoralise the citizens whom they serve.