Swiss shut shops due to virus variant fears

Bern (Switzerland) (AFP) –


Switzerland announced tough new restrictions Wednesday in a pre-emptive strike against a feared third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic caused by quicker-spreading variants of the virus.

The wealthy Alpine nation shut shops selling non-essential goods and ordered people to work from home in a bid to prevent an explosion in case numbers, saying the British-detected mutation had already taken root.

The Swiss government had been expected simply to extend the current closure of bars, restaurants and leisure facilities through February, but went much further with measures to be implemented from Monday.

"Case numbers are stagnating at a very high level and there is a risk that the new more infectious variants of the virus will lead to another rapid rise in cases," it said in a statement.

Swiss President Guy Parmelin and Health Minister Alain Berset explained the measures at a press conference where, for the first time, they were separated by plastic screens and wore masks throughout.

Berset said the British-detected variant was "50 to 70 percent more contagious" and was doubling from week to week, "driving us in February towards a much stronger third wave than the first two".

He said he hoped the government was, "for the first time", getting ahead of the pandemic.

Over Christmas, Berset admitted that ministers blundered in easing restrictions too far following the first wave, resulting in some of Europe's fiercest infection rates during the second wave around October and November.

The country of 8.6 million people has seen coronavirus infections gradually decrease from that spike, but the British mutation is now spreading domestically, albeit from a low level.

In addition to the closures, no more than five people will be able to gather in public or private, and facemasks must be worn at work if more than one person is in the room.

"Either we take measures now and minimise the negative social, economic and health consequences, or we wait and take even tougher measures in five or six weeks' time, with much graver consequences," Berset said.

Switzerland was the first country in western continental Europe to start its Covid-19 vaccination campaign, doing so on December 23 with the Pfizer-BioNTech jab.

It also gave the green light Tuesday to the Moderna vaccine.

Nearly 488,000 people in Switzerland have tested positive for the virus, while more than 7,800 people have died so far.