What does the lockdown in Italy mean for Switzerland?

The decision by the Italian government on Sunday affects some 16 million people in northern Italy. Keystone / Mourad Balti Touati

The Italian government’s decision to impose travel restrictions on the whole of Italy over the Covid-19 outbreak has raised fears of an economic standstill in the Swiss canton Ticino.

This content was published on March 11, 2020
Updated by ilj, sm, ug

Around 68,000 people cross the Swiss-Italian border every day for work. Countless more travel for pleasure. The Swiss canton’s economy relies heavily on its Italian hinterland for labour and trade. Yet, there is considerable confusion on the impact on Switzerland of the drastic measures taken in Italy. Many are asking why the border has not been closed.

What happened?

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Some 16 million people in Italy woke up on Sunday morning to the news that much of Italy’s north was on virtual lockdown - by Tuesday morning the Italian government had extended the measures across the country, a move that affects around 60 million people. Officials ordered everyone across the country not to move around other than for work and emergencies, banned all public gatherings and suspended sporting events.

This is an attempt to contain the outbreak of coronavirus that has led to more than 10,000 known infections in the country and resulted in over 600 known deaths by Wednesday. This is the highest in the world outside China. Cases of the virus have been confirmed in all 20 Italian regions.

On Wednesday, Swiss International Airlines suspended all flights to and from Italian destinations until April, The Swiss railway operator also reduced long-distance rail links with Italy.

The first known coronavirus infections in Switzerland occurred in Italian-speaking Ticino, which borders Italy, but the virus has since started to spread independently in the country. Ticino remains the most strongly affected canton. On Tuesday, the canton announcedExternal link its first death from the coronavirus, an 80-year-old woman, an old people’s home resident. This is the third such death in Switzerland.

Why is there a debate over whether to close the Swiss border?

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Many have been urging the Swiss authorities to seal the Swiss border, including medical professionals.

“The health structures in Lombardy are having great difficulty following these patients. We have to do everything to avoid the spread of the virus,” Ticino physician and University of Bern professor Andreas Cerny told Swiss public television, RTS, on Wednesday.

Right-wing protest movement Lega dei Ticinesi has also called for the closure of the Swiss border for people entering from Italy.

However, the economic risks are also considerable. Cross-border commuters from Italy account for more than a quarter of the total workforce in Ticino. Almost two-thirds of these workers are active in the service sector. 

Closing the border therefore risks paralysing a large part of the Ticino economy, jeopardising many basic services for the population. Among the sectors most affected would be the hospital sector: about half of the nursing staff are foreign and a fifth are cross-border workers.

Who can cross the border into Switzerland? 

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The Italian restrictions are expected to stay in force at least until April 3. The Italian authorities indicated that nobody would be allowed to move in or out of these areas, or within them, unless they had proven, work-related reasons for doing so, emergencies or health issues. 

The Swiss government said it required Italians working in Switzerland to provide proof of work as they enter the country. The federal customs administration said it was using spot checks and "risk-based" border controls. 

The Ticino authorities have also intensified checks at the border and surrounding areas, German-speaking Swiss public television SRF reported on Tuesday. Several thousand cars with Italian number plates have been checked since Monday morning, officials said. People without the right work permit have been sent back to Italy (this numbered 300 on Monday). The measures are resulting in longer lines at border crossings, the report said.

But Italians will not be prevented from working in Switzerland, a decision that is important for Ticino’s economy. "This should ensure the continued functioning of the Ticino health system," the Swiss government said in an updated statement on MondayExternal link. Nearly 4,000 Italians work in the canton's health care system.

It is unclear how Italian students who are enrolled at universities in Ticino or elsewhere in Switzerland are affected. The University of Italian Switzerland has asked its students from those areas in Italy to refrain from visiting the university’s campuses in Lugano and Mendrisio. On Tuesday, the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI) announcedExternal link it had decided to suspend lectures held as part of the Bachelor and Master degree courses until March 22.

Who can cross the border into Italy? 

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Bern has told Swiss residents to avoid visiting affected areas, but the border remains open for goods and international trains have been operating largely on schedule. There is no ban in place.

Other countries have issued travel advisories telling their citizens to not travel to affected areas.

What other measures are expected? 

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The Swiss government has said that it has no plans to fully close the border to Italy, as was reiteratedExternal link by interior minister Alain Berset, who holds the health portfolio, on Monday evening on Italian-speaking public broadcaster RSI.  The government repeated its stance on Tuesday, its spokesman issuing a denial on twitterExternal link of a media report suggesting that the border would close.

Economic considerations weigh heavily on the decision given the importance of workers in Italy to the local economy in Ticino. Italians occupy every fourth job in the canton.

A public survey published by the SonntagsBlick newspaper over the weekend suggested that one in four Swiss wanted the border with Italy to be closed because of the coronavirus epidemic.

Swiss neighbour Austria has barred travelers from crossing the border without a medical certificate.

There are currently no plans to call for the return of Swiss citizens who are living or staying in Italy, Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman Georg Farago told SRF on Tuesday. Swiss abroad and tourists in the country should follow local authorities' instructions, Farago said.

The Ticino government said late Monday evening that it was banning hospital and old peoples’ homes visits from Tuesday to protect the health of the most vulnerable and hospital resources.

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