Switzerland lifts COVID curbs; Germany and Austria to follow suit as pandemic situation in Europe improves

Through PTI

BERLIN: German leaders announced plans on Wednesday to end most of the country’s coronavirus restrictions by March 20, a move that coincided with moves by neighboring Austria and Switzerland to drop several of their restrictions earlier.

A three-step plan has been endorsed by Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the country’s 16 state governors as official figures show Germany’s COVID-19 infection rate is starting to drop.

“The peak has now probably been reached,” Scholz said.

The easing is to start by scrapping rules that prevented people without proof of vaccination or recovery from visiting non-essential shops and lifting limits on private gatherings of vaccinated people.

From March 4, entry requirements for restaurants and bars will be relaxed, with a negative test sufficient rather than, as in many areas now, proof of vaccination or recovery plus a test or booster shot.

And the remaining “far-reaching” restrictions are to be lifted on March 20, said Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey.

But Scholz said mask-wearing and distancing requirements will remain in place.

Germany has seen infections caused by the highly contagious omicron variant rise later than in several other European countries.

Officials attributed this to restrictions in place since December.

But other countries, including neighboring Denmark, have also moved more quickly to lift restrictions, and there have been growing calls for Germany to follow suit.

Earlier on Wednesday, Austria announced it would drop most of its restrictions on March 5 and Switzerland said most of its restrictions would be lifted this week.

Germany’s national center for disease control has reported several days of slight drops in the country’s infection rate, although it remains well above pre-omicron levels.

As Germany moves to ease its latest restrictions, the prospects for a vaccination mandate for all adults appear to be receding.

Scholz spoke out in favor of such a term just before becoming chancellor in December, but his three-party coalition is divided on the issue and he has left it to parliament to make proposals.

At this time, it’s unclear when lawmakers will vote on the legislation and whether any mandate would garner a majority.

Even already approved legislation requiring healthcare workers to show proof of vaccination or recovery by mid-March has faced difficulties, although Germany’s top court last week refused to temporarily block its implementation.

Switzerland on Wednesday became the latest European country to ease coronavirus restrictions, including ending health checks for incoming travelers and requiring COVID-19 passes to enter many public places.

The Federal Council, Switzerland’s seven-member executive, said from Thursday that masks and COVID-19 vaccination passes will no longer be required to enter shops, restaurants, cultural venues and other places and public events.

The requirement to wear masks in workplaces and a work-from-home recommendation will also end, as will capacity limits for large-scale gatherings.

The only requirements that will remain are an isolation order for anyone who tests positive and mandatory mask-wearing on public transport and in healthcare facilities.

“The epidemiological situation continues to evolve positively,” the government said.

“Thanks to the high level of immunity in the population, the healthcare system is unlikely to be overburdened despite the continued high level of circulation of the virus.”

Health authorities in the country of about 8.5 million people have reported more than 21,000 daily new cases of COVID-19 and 10 new deaths.

The trend has been steadily declining since a 7-day average of more than 36,000 cases per day was recorded in late January.

Incoming travelers will no longer be required to provide proof of vaccination, recovery or negative test, or complete a registration form.

These measures will also mean the end of government economic support for businesses hard hit by the pandemic.

The Austrian government said on Wednesday it plans to end the country’s main COVID-19 restrictions on March 5, although wearing masks will remain compulsory in some places.

Chancellor Karl Nehammer announced the decision at a press conference in Vienna, stressing that the pandemic is not yet over but that the situation allows Austria to open up step by step.

As a first step from Saturday, proof of vaccination or recent recovery will no longer be required to attend events, go to restaurants, bars or hairdressers and various other activities.

Evidence of a negative test will suffice for these things.

From March 5, most restrictions will be lifted, with nightclubs reopening and restrictions on restaurant and bar opening hours ending.

Nehammer said the requirement to wear FFP2 protective masks will remain in place where it is needed to protect the most vulnerable, including on public transport, essential shops and pharmacies.

Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein said he could not promise that tougher measures would no longer be needed in the future.

The number of new coronavirus cases worldwide fell 19% last week while the number of deaths remained stable, according to the World Health Organization.

The United Nations health agency said in its weekly pandemic report on Tuesday evening that just over 16 million new COVID-19 infections and around 75,000 deaths were reported worldwide in the past week.

The Western Pacific was the only region to report an increase in new weekly cases, an increase of around 19%, Southeast Asia reported a decrease of around 37%, the largest drop globally .

The number of deaths has increased by 38% in the Middle East and by about a third in the Western Pacific.

The highest number of new COVID-19 cases has been seen in Russia.

Cases there and elsewhere in Eastern Europe have doubled in recent weeks, driven by a rise in the highly infectious omicron variant.

The WHO said all other coronavirus variants, including alpha, beta and delta, continue to decline globally as omicron crowds them out.

Of the more than 400,000 COVID-19 virus sequences uploaded to the world’s largest virus database last week, more than 98% were omicron.

The WHO said the BA.2 version of omicron appears to be “increasing steadily” and its prevalence has increased in South Africa, Denmark, the UK and other countries.

Health officials noted, however, that omicron causes milder disease than previous variants of COVID-19 and that in countries with high vaccination rates, hospitalization and death rates do not increase. have not increased substantially even with the spread of the omicron.

WHO director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, said last week that there was “light at the end of the tunnel” for the continent and that even despite low vaccination rates, the Africa was transitioning from the acute pandemic phase of COVID-19.

This optimism contrasts sharply with the warnings of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has repeatedly stated that the pandemic is not over and that it is premature for countries to think the end may be imminent. .