AS OF midnight on Wednesday, the Swiss Government has dropped nearly all coronavirus restrictions, effective throughout the country from yesterday onwards. This is justified because the record levels of infections triggered by the Omicron variant have not translated into a peak of hospitalisations. President Ignazio Cassis announced: ‘Switzerland is taking a decisive and important step towards normality.’
Covid certificates will no longer be required to enter cafés, bars, restaurants and all other indoor venues such as theatres, museums, concert halls and sports facilities. There will be no restrictions on the size of gatherings and large events will not require authorisation. Masks will no longer be mandatory in schools, shops, public halls or work.
One domestic restriction remains however. Masks will continue to be required on public transport, and in medical facilities, while anyone testing positive will be required to self-isolate for five days, out of consideration for the most vulnerable. The authorities will also continue to provide EU-recognised certificates, not for domestic use, but for residents who wish to travel abroad.
While new infections rose sharply in Switzerland from mid-October 2021 as a result of colder weather and the spread of the Omicron variant, health officials have confirmed that these have passed their peak and are falling steadily. The seven-day average daily figure is now down by almost 25 per cent compared with the previous week. They claim that more than 90 per cent of the population have developed a certain immunity to the virus, either by recovery or by vaccination, which is still less than 70 per cent. This is accepted as a positive epidemiological situation, and there are no longer fears that the healthcare system will be overloaded, in spite of the high level of virus circulation.
Reaction throughout the country has been generally in favour. The government has been positive but measured: ‘We should not be afraid of a return to normality, but not too enthusiastic either. The virus will not disappear . . . Switzerland has come through these two years without any problems. Confidence in the institutions and democracy has proven itself.’
Trade and business spokesmen have been much more enthusiastic. After all, Switzerland recorded a CHF 12billion (£9.5billion) deficit in the second year of the pandemic. And while Greens and Social Democrats spout the usual doom and gloom, ‘No one is safe until everyone is safe’, the Swiss People’s Party are in no doubt that ‘the Federal Council has comprehensively put an end to the largely arbitrary, discriminatory and useless coronavirus measures – a step that was long overdue’.
Neighbouring Austria has announced that it too will lift most of its remaining restrictions by March 5, including the curfew imposed on bars and nightclubs and the requirement for a Covid certificate, citing the same decline in infections. This has raised doubts about the draconian law already passed which would have made vaccination compulsory, the first EU country to do so. A committee of experts on health and constitutional law will carry out a review and report to government by March 15, which suggests that it might be scrapped altogether before fines are handed out. It is possible that other countries with such stringent and divisive policies may also begin to relent, perceiving a competitive disadvantage otherwise.
According to official statistics in the UK, coronavirus testing, cases, hospitalisations and deaths in Britain have been declining steeply. Between February 10 and 16, positive test cases showed a fall of almost 27 per cent over the previous week, while deaths within 28 days of a positive test were down by nearly 29 per cent – even more dramatic than the decreases welcomed by the Swiss officials. Yet the new normal in the UK is still far from comparable with the old in terms of travel into the country. While the fully vaccinated (a term which is not entirely set in stone) may travel internationally, those who are not fully vaccinated continue to face a discriminatory nightmare when entering England. They are required to complete the following procedures:
· take a Covid-19 test in the two days before travelling to England
· book and pay for a Covid-19 PCR test to be taken after arrival in England
· complete a passenger locator form within 48 hours before arrival in England, containing the relevant PCR test booking reference number.
And that’s just before you set off! Once arrived in England, there is no longer a quarantine requirement, but it is then necessary to:
· take the booked PCR test within two days of arrival
· if positive or unclear, compulsory self-isolation.
This is a minefield strewn with unforeseeable problems. The PCR tests are notoriously unreliable and known for their high level of false positives. Self-isolation means virtual house (or expensive substandard hotel) arrest. There is to be no contact with others, even your family in whose house you may be required to isolate. The isolation period may actually exceed the length of the planned visit. And the costs are all down to the unvaxxed traveler, including up to £10,000 in fines for breaking the rules.
Most sinister of all is the nature of the ensuing QR code. The regulations generously state that this will be deleted after 42 days ‘unless needed for related work’. We all know what that means. So who is going to risk all that for the sake of a long weekend in London? Especially since even Switzerland, in company with every other nation that issued a Covid-19 certificate, has made sure they retain the basic legislation on the books, which enables them to reintroduce the restrictions when it suits them. Don’t forget the foreboding words of the Social Democrats – ‘It isn’t over yet’ (or ever?).
Prime Minister Johnson and Health Secretary Javid must surely accept that the risks have now declined more than enough to allow them to give up these unnecessary travel conditions, dreamed up, remember, to deal with a virus with a more than 99 per cent recovery rate using a medical intervention that neither prevents infection nor transmission. This would be the only rational solution if Covid-19 management was actually about public health. But one can be forgiven for deducing that all this palaver is nothing to do with your health, and everything to do with the introduction of a digital ID system which allows the state unprecedented powers to monitor and control every individual in the country – in the world!
The use of the word passport to describe such totalitarian repression is an insult to my newly acquired dark blue non-EU version. So it’s time you proved me wrong, Mr Johnson, and follow Switzerland’s lead. This is your big chance to prove what a truly liberal leader you are. Then I can happily get on with recycling my old Christmas tree.