More than 60 prominent Swiss economists have added their names to an open letter urging the government to rethink its coronavirus strategy and impose a nationwide lockdown as Covid-19 cases across the country soar.
Bern has repeatedly said it has no intention of reinstating tough restrictions on public life. But as a result, the wealthy alpine state, with its reputation for efficiency and order, faces one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the world.
The new signatories were added to the letter, posted online last week, warning the Swiss economy will be just as hard hit by keeping shops and restaurants open — and allowing infections to rise — as it would be by a second lockdown.
“There seems to be a pervasive misunderstanding regarding the economics of Covid-19,” it stated.
The latest data from the Federal Office of Public Health show 1,148 cases per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks. New infections are greater than those in the US or the UK and second only to the Czech Republic in continental Europe.
The situation is particularly stark given that Switzerland’s handling of the first wave was viewed by many — not least by the Swiss themselves, as polls in the summer showed — as having been exemplary.
“The numbers are just hallucinatory,” said Richard Baldwin, professor of international economics at the Graduate Institute on Geneva and one of the early signatories of the open letter. “Literally in one month, October, Switzerland went from being significantly better than the US to three times worse.”
The consensus in the governing Swiss Federal Council, the seven-person executive that represents four political parties, leans away from any new curbs on public life, however.
The council believes the current appropriate response is to stress heavily the need among the Swiss for selbstverantwortung — self-responsibility.
Officials are also now openly talking of the “Swiss variant” of the Swedish model.
Sweden eschewed a lockdown during the first wave of the pandemic and instead sought to encourage its population to slow the spread of the virus with softer, less-coercive measures.
Switzerland was one of the first countries in Europe to reopen its shops and restaurants after the first wave, and since the end of the summer, the focus from Bern has been on trying to boost the economy.
“We strongly believe that the Federal Council has made the right decision and that this time it is different to the spring,” said professor Rudolf Minsch, chief economist at Economiesuisse, the highly-influential business lobbying group. Economiesuisse is closely listened to by the Federal Council, which rarely acts out of line with the group’s advice.
“This strategy is the right thing to fight this . . . you could say it is an adapted Swedish approach.”
Treatments are more efficacious, contact tracing is in place, and across public life social distancing and hygiene measures are being followed, Prof Minsch said, so the second wave can be much more effectively controlled than the first.
The effect of more targeted restrictions that came into place in Switzerland last month, designed to curb “super spreader” events by banning gatherings of more than four people indoors and closing hospitality venues at 11pm, is only now beginning to be seen, he added. “The government is very closely following the science . . . We know that super spreader events are the key. The next few days will be crucial.”
In the past seven days, the rolling seven-day average of new infections in Switzerland has plateaued and begun to fall.
Many are still sceptical of what lies ahead, however.
“There is a false dichotomy between health and the economy,” said Florin Bilbiie, professor of economics at the university of Lausanne, and a cosignatory of the public letter condemning Bern’s current course. “If you let things get out of control as they have so quickly, then things are going to stop, especially in an economy which is service driven.
“Who is going to go to hotels or ski slopes this year with people dropping like flies?”