Switzerland halves new infections without national lockdown as pubs and restaurants stay open

Justin Huggler
People walk under Christmas illuminations, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, on Bahnhofstrasse shopping street in Zurich, Switzerland November 28, 2020. Picture taken with long exposure. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann -  ARND WIEGMANN/REUTERS
People walk under Christmas illuminations, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, on Bahnhofstrasse shopping street in Zurich, Switzerland November 28, 2020. Picture taken with long exposure. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann - ARND WIEGMANN/REUTERS

Switzerland is emerging as a model for how the coronavirus can be contained without a national lockdown, after daily new infections halved since the start of November despite pubs, restaurants, gyms and sports remaining open in much of the country.

The figures were hailed as a triumph for the “Swiss special way” by Swiss government doctors last week, and will be seen as evidence that regional tiers can work in the UK.

Rather than ordering a general lockdown, Switzerland allowed regions to decide their own measures and only the worst-hit imposed tough restrictions. But critics have charged that the success came at too high a price, after the country experienced some of the highest death rates in Europe.

Switzerland has been described as the “new Sweden” after it refused to follow the UK and other countries into a second lockdown this month. The Swiss government imposed only minimal restrictions at a national level, including a limit of ten on private gatherings, an 11pm curfew for restaurants and the compulsory use of facemasks in crowded areas.

Watch: Ski resort openings divide Europe

Switzerland’s cantons were allowed to decide their own restrictions at a regional level. While some, such as Geneva, ordered a full lockdown, other major cities such as Zurich and Bern allowed restaurants, pubs and gyms to remain open throughout.

Yet new infections have fallen more dramatically than in countries under complete lockdown. On November 5, Switzerland recorded 10,128 new cases and 26.2 per cent of tests were positive. Just over three weeks later, on November 27, new cases were down to 4,312 and positive tests to 15.8 per cent.

“The Swiss special way has worked. The slowdown has reversed the infection trend. Now we have to stick with it.” Thomas Steffen, a Swiss government medical advisor, told a press conference last week. But he cautioned that the figures showed the effectiveness of targeted regional lockdowns.

A cooker wearing a protective face mask prepare a fondue, the beloved Swiss national dish of cheese melted down with white wine in a "caquelon" pot heated by an open flame at Restaurant Marzilibruecke in Bern, on November 16, 2020. - As Switzerland contends with one of the worst coronavirus surges in Europe, the Swiss are gripped by one melting hot question: is it still safe to share a fondue? (Photo by STEFAN WERMUTH / AFP) / TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY AGNES PEDRERO AND VIDEO BY ELOI ROUYER (Photo by STEFAN WERMUTH/AFP via Getty Images) - STEFAN WERMUTH/AFP
A cooker wearing a protective face mask prepare a fondue, the beloved Swiss national dish of cheese melted down with white wine in a "caquelon" pot heated by an open flame at Restaurant Marzilibruecke in Bern, on November 16, 2020. - As Switzerland contends with one of the worst coronavirus surges in Europe, the Swiss are gripped by one melting hot question: is it still safe to share a fondue? (Photo by STEFAN WERMUTH / AFP) / TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY AGNES PEDRERO AND VIDEO BY ELOI ROUYER (Photo by STEFAN WERMUTH/AFP via Getty Images) - STEFAN WERMUTH/AFP

“The development of the past few weeks is positive, but we shouldn't fool ourselves,” he said. “The decline in infections was primarily observed in cantons that previously had high numbers of cases. These cantons took additional measures.”

The death rate rose steeply, peaking at 152 per million inhabitants over the two weeks ending November 23. The current biweekly rate in the UK is 92, while in Italy, it’s 160.

Switzerland is currently locked in a stand-off with other European governments over its decision to keep its ski resorts open despite pressure from France, Italy and Germany for a Europe-wide ban.

Watch: How England's new three-tier COVID system will work