Coronavirus: good French-Swiss relations mobilise to save lives

A Covid-19 patient is evacuated by helicopter from Mulhouse hospital in France on March 23. Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Faced with huge numbers of people suffering from Covid-19 arriving at hospitals in northeastern France, a local official turned to neighbouring Switzerland for help. The request met receptive ears and it has yielded results: about 50 French patients are now being treated in Switzerland.

Cross-border solidarity is proving particularly valuable in the era of the pandemic. Several Swiss cantons have agreed to accept French patients struck by Covid-19 in order to help overcrowded hospitals in the Grand Est and Franche-Comté regions which border Switzerland. Fifty sick people from France have so far been transferred to Switzerland. Germany and Luxembourg have also taken in French patients.

This all stems from the initiative of a local official: Brigitte Klinkert, the president of the Upper Rhine departmental council, decided to mobilise good connections established with regional neighbours in Switzerland and Germany. On March 21, she wrote a message to the governments of the cantons of Basel City, Basel Country and Jura, as well as to the French prime minister, appealing for solidarity beyond national borders.

Everyone thought it was an excellent idea, and the Swiss cantons agreed the same day to make beds available. On Sunday morning, the Swiss government endorsed the agreements and the hospitals responsible began making arrangements for the transfers. “This cooperation was launched very spontaneously,” says Brigitte Klinkert. “Our friendly relations and cross-border solidarity came into play.”

No compensation

This first initiative took hold and spread: the Grand Est regional health agency seized the baton and contacted other Swiss cantons with the help of French consulates in Geneva and Zurich. More beds were made available, including in regions such as St. Gallen and Thurgau that are not necessarily in the habit of cooperating with Alsace.

No Italian patients 

Switzerland has received no requests to take in patients from Italy. For that reason, there is not one Italian patient currently receiving treatment in a Swiss hospital, the Ticino authorities and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs told swissinfo.ch.

Giulio Gallera, who heads the Lombardy crisis unit, confirmed that no such approach had been made and that Lombardy has preferred to turn to other regions of Italy.

However, several Italian patients have been transferred to Germany in recent days. Italy is the country hardest-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe, with more than 12,000 fatalities.

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From now on, requests for patient transfers from abroad are centralised at the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health. No specific agreement has been reached between the Swiss and French governments and no compensation has been negotiated, according to the French Embassy in Switzerland and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

“Switzerland is in permanent contact with neighbouring countries to coordinate measures in the struggle against the coronavirus and to find swift solutions to specific problems,” the FDFA says. “Thanks to a concerted approach, Switzerland has been able to guarantee, among other things, that its borders remain open for cross-border workers, which is particularly important for hospitals in some regions of our country.”

The Neuchâtel Hospital Network has said 60% of its nurses working in intensive care are cross-border workers. At the Jura Hospital, 30% of the medical and nursing staff live in neighbouring France. In total, there are more than 30,000 French cross-border workers employed in the health sector in Switzerland. “A solution for cross-border workers has been in place since March 19,” says Frédéric Journès, the French ambassador in Switzerland. “Just seven days later, the plan to accept patients from Alsace in response to the health emergency there was activated.”

Two-way solidarity

Good collaboration is beneficial to both sides: Switzerland profits from qualified labour and France from infrastructure in an emergency. A framework agreement on trans-border health cooperation between the two countries has already been agreed. It entered into force on October 1 last year. This document underlines that the cost of treatment should be covered by the patient’s country of origin.

And what if the supply of hospital beds runs short in Switzerland too? During the pandemic, the cantons are obliged to inform the federal government regularly about hospital occupancy rates. The Federal Office of Public Health says it is using these figures to evaluate capacity to take in patients from abroad. It then confers with cantonal authorities to determine whether a transfer is possible.

This global vision on a Swiss scale still isn’t perfect, however, the Jura Hospital says: “At the moment, we are lacking a national platform to assess capacity in intensive care units and everything is reliant on contact between hospitals.”

If the pandemic continues to intensify in Switzerland and the health infrastructure can’t keep up with demand, the country could, in turn, request help from neighbours. “We are convinced that faced with this pandemic, European solidarity is essential to fight off Covid-19,” says Journès.

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