Switzerland is dropping travel restrictions while everyone else freaks out

Travel restrictions can be a slippery slope.
Travel restrictions can be a slippery slope.
Image: Reuters/Denis Balibouse
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Nearly two weeks ago, on Nov. 26 and 27, Switzerland introduced a mandatory 10-day quarantine for arrivals from a dozen countries—mostly from the southern Africa region, but also including the UK—because of fears over the omicron variant. However, on Dec. 4, the Swiss scrapped the quarantine for all travelers, becoming the first country to roll back some restrictions.

Swiss health minister Alain Berset said it “no longer made sense to maintain quarantine for people coming from countries where this variant is circulating, because it’s also circulating here.”

Instead, Switzerland is expanding its covid certificate requirement, shortening the validity period for antigen tests, and enforcing wider mandatory rules on wearing a mask. All inbound travelers must take a PCR test before travel, as well as second PCR or rapid antigen test between the fourth and seventh day after arrival, and pay out of their own pockets for them. Could the Swiss set an example for other countries?

Do quarantines help contain covid-19?

Travels bans are controversial. On one hand, they can help countries buy more time to improve their response and medical infrastructure to get a grip on the situation. On the flip side, they disrupt livelihoods, separate families, and create a lasting sense of injustice.

“Border measures are never 100% effective and no country that didn’t pursue a rigorous zero-covid strategy has ever managed to keep a variant out for long,” Richard Neher, an expert in viral evolution at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel, told Quartz. “If the main purpose is buying some time, one needs to use that time wisely and lift restrictions as soon as possible.”

Moreover, there’s only a small window in which curbing international travel makes sense. “One needs to assess the usefulness of travel restrictions in the light of local circulation. If local cases of the variants are high, travel is not the greatest concern,” Neher says.

With omicron covid cases being reported in over 38 countries, that window has likely closed. “It’s like you are trying to prevent sparks from entering the forest, but the wildfires are already starting,” Italian physicist Alessandro Vespignani told the New Yorker about the US banning flights from eight southern African nations. “It’s out of the bag.” The omicron variant is already in a third of US states.

Additionally, such measures unfairly punish a region for its swift and accurate response—without proof that the variant originated where it was detected. “Johannesburg has the biggest airport on the continent,” said Tulio de Oliveira, who is leading South Africa’s viral genomics surveillance program. “[Omicron] could have come from anywhere.”

Instead of closing borders, the developed world should be helping its less developed counterparts achieve vaccine equity, experts say.

Although Switzerland has done away with quarantine, it has classified seven southern African nations—Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa—as regions where an “immunevasive virus variant is spreading that is not yet prevalent in the Schengen area.” Short-term tourism by nationals of these “emergency brake” countries is still barred.

Switzerland scrapped quarantine to save winter tourism

Switzerland doesn’t entirely have its covid situation under control. Cases have been skyrocketing, and hospitals are overburdened and understaffed. In the largest canton, Zurich, there are no ICU beds left.

But the wealthy Alpine nation has a big incentive to drop the curbs: saving ski season.

When the compulsory quarantine requirement kicked in, Zermatt, Switzerland’s busiest ski resort, saw bookings plummet 50% in 48 hours, spokesperson Sabrina Marcolin said. Several travel operators from countries like Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canada reported mass cancellations for Christmas trips to Switzerland. Winter tourism generates more than $5 billion in revenues.

Plus, the country is banking on vaccinations to keep things under control. Almost two-thirds of the population is fully vaccinated, comparable with rates in the UK and Germany. And the jab will remain free and easily available in 2022, the government has assured its citizens. Meanwhile, most unvaccinated travelers from outside the Schengen zone will be denied entry unless they can show proof of employment or hardship.

Travel and tourism businesses, from ski resorts to restaurants, are all rejoicing at the reversal of quarantine enforcement.The knee has been un-jerked,” says ski holiday agency SNO’s chief executive Richard Sinclair. “It’s nice to get a bit of good news.”

This piece has been updated with comments from Swiss scientist Richard Neher.