Covid-19: Interior minister calls for discipline ahead of holidays and ski season

“We are autonomous and can decide ourselves whether we leave ski areas open," Alain Berset said on Thursday. Keystone / Peter Schneider

The Swiss government has announced ski resorts can open, provided they comply with strict protection measures. It is also confident vaccination could start in the first quarter of 2021.

This content was published on November 26, 2020 - 17:27

"The ski season is a great challenge. It requires good protection plans and a strict implementation of those plans," said interior minister responsible for health, Alain Berset, during a press conference on Thursday. He cautioned that developments over the next few weeks are crucial to keep resorts open.

France, Italy, Austria and Germany have said that high-altitude lifts should remain closed for now, in the hopes that all resorts can then benefit at peak season, when and if infection rates go down.

Berset defended the decision to allow Swiss ski resorts to open, saying that it is possible to imagine that “there are differences between the measures from one country to the other.” He confirmed that the Swiss government is in regular contact with neighbouring countries, but that closures across the border do complicate the situation in Switzerland.

“We are autonomous and can decide ourselves whether we leave ski areas open. But we know what's at stake. The situation must not get out of hand,” said Berset.

The government is working closely with cantonal authorities on implementing protection measures, which Berset said is the biggest challenge to keeping ski resorts open over the winter. He added that from what experts have said, ski resorts have good plans, but that it also needs to be clear what happens if these don’t work.

Swiss strategy

The Covid-19 situation in Switzerland has improved in the last week but hospitalisations and deaths remain high. "The figures have been falling for three weeks, and the measures taken by the authorities are taking effect, thanks in part to the discipline of the population," Berset said.

The interior minister characterised the Swiss strategy as a mix of self-discipline, personal responsibility and common sense. "We can continue to live – there is no curfew [and] no lockdown like in other countries."

In late October the government introduced restrictions, including a nationwide mask requirement in indoor areas, amid new daily infections that surged above 10,000.  On Thursday, the country reported just over 4,000 new cases in the previous 24 hours. However, the situation varies across cantons.

Berset appealed to the Swiss people to stay disciplined with the upcoming shopping and holiday season around the corner, especially as colder temperatures mean spending more time indoors. Bringing case numbers down is key to allow for contact tracing.

“You can’t imagine that the situation is behind us with the holidays ahead of us,” said Berset.

Progress on vaccines

The government expects that it will be possible to start vaccinations in the first part of 2021. The vaccine should be free to the population, but Berset confirmed that there will be no mandatory vaccination.

Virginie Masserey, head of infections control and vaccination programmes at the Federal Office of Public Health, said there was currently insufficient data on long-term immunity of the vaccine candidates to say what proportion of the population needs to be vaccinated. It is expected that the priority will be the elderly and other high-risk groups.

The government has faced questions about whether it is moving more slowly than other countries when it comes to making a vaccine available. Berset reiterated that it will not compromise on safety.

Once a vaccine is approved, Berset expects "the greatest logistical challenge in healthcare ever". The cantons would be responsible for ensuring that the population can be vaccinated as quickly as possible.

He added that large volumes of a vaccine are unlikely to be available until the spring.

Switzerland has thus far finalised contracts with both Moderna and AstraZeneca for doses if their vaccines prove effective and safe. It had a binding reservation with Pfizer/BioNtech but the final details are still being worked out.

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