Switzerland votes to KEEP its Covid restrictions in place in referendum – as country records first suspected case of Omicron
- In a large turnout, 62 per cent of voters backed the Covid legislation
- It keeps vaccine passports in place for Swiss public events and gatherings
- A suspected case of Omicron has been identified in a traveller from South Africa
Switzerland has voted to keep its Covid restrictions in place, backing vaccine passports which only allow people who have been vaccinated, recovered or tested negative to attend public events and gatherings.
Final results showed 62 per cent of voters supporting the legislation, which is already in force, and the referendum came on the same day as the first suspected case of the Omicron variant in the country.
The controversial vote, which was met by protests, offered a rare bellwether of public opinion on the issue of government policy to fight the spread of coronavirus in Europe, which remains the global epicenter of the pandemic.
Voters queue across the Muenster Bridge near Zurich City Hall to cast their ballot at the City Hall polling station to vote in a Covid19 referendum in Switzerland
The referendum was met by protests in front of parliament in Bern but the result was overwhelming after the tense campaign
The vote offered a rare bellwether of public opinion on the issue of government policy to fight the spread of coronavirus in Europe
The country’s ‘Covid-19 law,’ which also has unlocked billions of Swiss francs in aid for workers and businesses hit by the pandemic, came as Switzerland – like many other nations in Europe – faces a steep rise in coronavirus cases.
The Swiss federal government, unlike others, hasn’t responded with new restrictions.
Analysts said it did not want to stir up more opposition to its policies before they faced Sunday’s test at the ballot box, but now that voters gave a thumbs-up, the government may well ratchet up its anti-Covid efforts.
Health Minister Alain Berset said, with the result, authorities ‘still have the necessary instruments to manage the crisis, and we can, if necessary, adjust the instruments to developments.’
Of the country’s 26 cantons, only two – Schwyz and Appenzell Innerrhoden, both conservative rural regions in eastern Switzerland – voted against the legislation.
Of the country’s 26 cantons, only two – Schwyz and Appenzell Innerrhoden, both conservative rural regions in eastern Switzerland – voted against the legislation
The country’s ‘Covid-19 law,’ has unlocked billions of Swiss francs in aid for workers and businesses hit by the pandemic
‘A decision has been made and we must come together now to get through this winter as well as possible,’ Berset said. ‘This is an appeal for unity but also for respect for decisions that have been taken.’
Turnout on Sunday was 65.7 per cent, unusually high for a country that holds referendums several times a year.
On Tuesday, Swiss health authorities warned of a rising ‘fifth wave’ on infections in the rich Alpine country, where vaccination rates are roughly in line with those in hard-hit neighbors Austria and Germany at about two-thirds of the population. Infection rates have soared in recent weeks.
The seven-day average case count in Switzerland shot up to more than 5,200 per day from mid-October to mid-November, a more than five-fold increase.
Austria, meanwhile, has imposed a national lockdown to fight the rising infections.
It comes as the first probable case of the Omicron variant has been detected in Switzerland, the government said late on Sunday, as the country tightened its entry restrictions to check its spread.
Police officers stand in formation during a protest against Switzerland’s Covid laws during Sunday’s referendum
The case relates to a person who returned to Switzerland from South Africa around a week ago, the Federal Office for Public Health said on Twitter.
Testing will clarify the situation in the coming days, it added.
Switzerland has ordered that travellers from 19 countries must present a negative test when boarding a fight to the country, and must go into quarantine for 10 days on arrival.
The list includes Australia, Denmark, Britain, Czech Republic, South Africa and Israel.
The WHO has warned the super-mutant poses a ‘very high’ risk to the global pandemic recovery with ‘severe consequences’ possible if it causes a new wave of infections.
‘Omicron has an unprecedented number of mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,’ the WHO said, amid fears the new variant is much more infectious than previous strains including Delta.
‘The overall global risk related to the new variant …is assessed as very high.’
Countries are rushing to impose new border rules in an attempt to slow the spread of the variant, with Australia (pictured) saying that plans to allow fully vaccinated visa holders into the country will be delayed by two weeks from December 1
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, sounded the alarm at the start of an assembly of health ministers as he pressed leaders to negotiate a legally-binding treaty on how future pandemics will be managed.
‘The emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is,’ Tedros said. ‘Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores.’
He spoke as countries rushed to reimpose travel restrictions that had just started to ease after South Africa identified the Omicron variant, with Japan banning all foreign arrivals starting at midnight and Australia putting the brakes on plans to ease its travel ban so that visa holders and skilled workers can enter the country.
Meanwhile police in the Netherlands said they had arrested a couple who broke out of a quarantine hotel for suspected Omicron cases on Sunday and boarded a flight out of the country before being stopped.
Japan will ban all foreigners from entering the country starting at midnight on Monday, with citizens returning from nations deemed ‘high risk’ forced into quarantine (pictured, a man at Tokyo airport)
Border police said they arrested a couple on a plane at Schiphol Airport after they ran from a hotel where Covid-19 positive passengers from South Africa were being quarantined.
‘The arrests took place as the plane was about to take off,’ the Marechaussee police force said on Twitter, adding that the pair had been handed over to the public health authority.
Omicron, which was first identified in South Africa but is thought to have originated in Botswana, is the most-mutated form of Covid yet found and has been declared a ‘variant of concern’ by the WHO because early data suggests it is more-infectious than the Delta strain and may have an increased ability to infect vaccinated people.
But data is limited to just a few dozen cases and huge question marks remain, including whether Omicron causes more serious disease as well as being more infectious. Dr Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who treated the first known cases, has said that so-far the symptoms seem milder than the Delta variant.
What do we know about the Omicron variant?
Scientists have said they are concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant, named by the World Health Organisation as Omicron, as it has around 30 different mutations – double the amount present in the Delta variant. The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before.
UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana.
On Friday, it was confirmed that cases had been identified in Israel and Belgium but currently there are no known cases in the UK.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told Good Morning Britain on Friday that sequencing is being carried out around the UK to determine if any cases have already been imported.
Work is also under way to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role.
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, has said the new variant will ‘almost certainly’ make vaccines less effective, though they would still offer protection.
Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant’s ability to evade vaccines.
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