The essential attributes of the Swiss State structure – direct democracy and federalism – have conditioned Switzerland’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Switzerland is the only country that has moved from emergency measures and a shutdown imposed by the Federal Government (185 Swiss Constitution; 7 Federal Law on Epidemics) on 16 March 2020, to a Federal Covid-19 Law adopted by the Federal Parliament on 25 September 2020, and confirmed by the people on the occasion of the vote of 13 June 2021. Following the introduction of Covid-19 certificate requirements, a new referendum against the Federal Covid-19 Law was filed on 8 July 2021. The Swiss people will vote again on 28 November 2021.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of Swiss federalism. The intricate entanglement of powers and responsibilities shared between the Federal Government, federal authorities, cantons, inter-cantonal bodies, the armed forces, and the Swiss Covid-19 task force (scientific advisory committee) has dominated Switzerland’s pandemic response. In addition, the distribution of power between the federal and cantonal levels in the context of infectious disease control is not static but dynamic, depending on the epidemiological situation and the need to adopt uniform measures throughout Switzerland. This dynamic has significantly delayed Switzerland’s response to the second wave in the fall of 2020, leading to a new shutdown and a high excess death rate at the end of 2020. Unlike in many other countries, no strict confinement has been imposed in Switzerland so far, neither by the Federal Government nor by any cantons.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also highlighted systemic, institutional, and legal obstacles and inefficiencies in Switzerland’s public health system. Partly due to federalism and the lack of digitalization, the rollout of Swiss vaccination programs in early 2021 was slow and error-prone. Today, vaccine skepticism in a significant part of the Swiss population jeopardizes returning to a life without restrictions. In October 2021, only 61 percent of the Swiss population are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe. Certain cantons have introduced vaccine mandates for healthcare professionals working in a hospital setting, but no federal decision has been taken in this regard. Meanwhile, more and more private employers impose mandatory vaccination for current or new employees.
To increase vaccination rates and stem newly rising infections in the summer of 2021, the Federal Government has introduced the Covid-19 certificate for recovered, vaccinated, and tested individuals (3-G-rule). Since 26 June 2021, Covid-19 certificates have been mandatory in nightclubs and major events. From 13 September 2021, the Covid-19 certificate requirement has been extended to include restaurants, bars, and most cultural, sporting, and leisure events taking place indoors. Universities may decide to impose a certificate requirement. To make vaccination even more attractive, the Federal Government has also changed the rules of financial coverage. From 11 October 2021, individuals aged 16 or over must pay for tests carried out to obtain a Covid-19 certificate. These tests have been available for free up until now.
The Swiss Federal Supreme Court has largely rejected individual claims contesting Covid-19 measures, such as postponement of communal elections, mask mandates, vaccination in schools, and parental consent for vaccination of adolescents.