Media slam ‘Federal Office of Cock-ups’ for Covid data confusion

How risky are Swiss nightclubs, such as this one in Zurich last month? Keystone

Swiss newspapers have not minced their words after the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) admitted getting its numbers seriously wrong about the source of coronavirus infections. The papers are calling for the office’s new management to get its act together.

This content was published on August 4, 2020 - 12:30

On Friday the health office claimed that two-thirds of Covid-19 cases could be traced to bars, clubs and restaurants. On Sunday it said Covid-19 was actually mainly transmitted through family (27.2%), followed by the workplace (8.7%) and private parties (3%). Nightclubs and dance clubs accounted for only 1.9% of contracted cases; bars and restaurants for 1.6%.

Health minister Alain Berset told the Swiss public broadcaster SRF that there would be consequences for the way the ministry is organised, but added that the mistake was corrected quickly.

“The Federal Office of Cock-ups” is how the normally staid Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) referred to the FOPH in its editorial.

“The goof with the infection figures of clubs and bars is embarrassing and shows that once again the FOPH has been overwhelmed by the coronavirus crisis,” it said.

“Even though the number of infected people is now increasing again, Switzerland has come through the coronavirus crisis pretty well so far. But the longer the crisis lasts, the more the question arises as to whether this has been achieved because of the FOPH – or despite it.”

The NZZ said a federal office “can’t afford such sloppiness”. “These are highly relevant figures. They directly influence the political discourse about which measures against Covid-19 are particularly urgent in which areas.”

The paper said it was understandable that the FOPH was sometimes overwhelmed by the force of the pandemic – “it’s the same for most institutions and companies”. It added that the health office does not determine the country’s coronavirus policy on its own – political responsibility lies with the government and particularly with the cantonal authorities.

“Nevertheless, it is grave indeed that the FOPH is repeatedly not up to the task,” it said, citing the example of the toing and froing about making face masks compulsory.

The editorial concluded with a call for the health office to sort itself out.

“Pascal Strupler has been in charge of the FOPH for ten years. During the pandemic he’s mostly kept his head down, leaving the stage to Daniel Koch [former head of communicable diseases at the FOPH] and his successor Stefan Kuster. This is probably also because Strupler had already announced his departure last autumn, making him a ‘lame duck’. In October political scientist Anne Lévy takes over the post. Her number one goal must be to pull the FOPH out of its torpor.”

Whom to believe?

In French-speaking Switzerland Le Temps shared the NZZ’s concerns, adding that the government’s new statistics aren’t credible any more.

“Whom to believe? This weekend the Federal Office of Public Health published a correction stating that the coronavirus is not transmitted in nightclubs but in families. On Sunday evening, however, Mauro Poggia, head of the Geneva department of safety, employment and health, explained that his canton had closed nightclubs on the basis of its own figures. Between the cantons and the FOPH, the confusion is total,” the paper wrote.

“This new blunder, coming after the controversy over whether healthy people need to wear a mask, is therefore damaging the FOPH’s already tarnished reputation.”

Le Temps quoted Philippe Eggimann, president of the Medical Society of French-speaking Switzerland. “This is dramatic,” he said, “because, standing on the threshold of a probable second wave, Switzerland needs a credible administration on which political decisions can be based. Otherwise, it’s the work of the government itself that is discredited.”

‘Loss of confidence’

For the Tages Anzeiger in Zurich the affair was more than just a great embarrassment for the FOPH. “Its handling of numbers is negligent,” it said in an editorial.

“The cantons, which are responsible for restrictions, including closures, depend on reliable figures from the government. The fact that FOPH director Pascal Strupler rebuked the cantons on Friday for failing to take their responsibilities seriously is therefore a mockery,” it said.

“Above all, however, there’s a risk of a loss of confidence among the public. If the supposedly rational arguments for restrictions can no longer be trusted, the protective measures will lose support. They are then much more difficult to implement. This was already demonstrated by the FOPH’s unsuccessful communication concerning masks.”

The Tages-Anzeiger also said Anne Lévy must give a greater priority to communication than her predecessor, “who in recent months has been responsible for quite a few communication breakdowns”.

Share this story