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Parliamentary body critical of Swiss pandemic preparedness

Confusing: social distancing markers in Bern during the pandemic. Keystone / Anthony Anex

The Swiss government’s reaction to the arrival of Covid-19 in spring 2020 was too passive, a parliamentary audit committee has said. But it concluded that the handling of the first pandemic wave was generally “satisfactory”.

This content was published on May 24, 2022 - 15:57
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“The government did not recognise early enough that this was a crosscutting crisis of global dimensions, and it underestimated how long it might last,” the committee said in a report published on Tuesday.

This meant individual ministries and federal departments initially acted in an uncoordinated manner, developing response measures on their own during the first weeks of the pandemic, the report said.

The Interior Ministry – responsible for public health – played a “predominant” role, to the detriment of other relevant departments, the audit committee wrote.

Similarly, a task force operated by the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) took on a leadership position for which it was not fully prepared; and though the FOPH did the best it could under the circumstances, it was faced with an unprecedented workload and level of public scrutiny, and quickly met with staffing problems, including high levels of overtime and several changes at key levels.

Moreover, the audit committee said that consultation between the government and the 26 cantons during the first weeks of the pandemic in spring 2020 was “unsatisfactory” and “unsystematic”.

Division of powers

Switzerland’s normal division of responsibilities was upended after Covid arrived in the country in February 2020. The government in Bern took on special powers under the Epidemics Act to deal with the crisis response. It later gave back much of the responsibility to the regions in summer 2020; but according to another report published in April this year, an ongoing lack of coordination between federal and cantonal levels resulted in a renewed spike in Covid cases in autumn and winter 2021.

However, both this April report – an independent study commissioned by the FOPH – and the parliamentary audit gave generally good marks to the Swiss pandemic response. That said, today’s report only covered the period of January to June 2020 – the first wave.

Meanwhile, speaking to RTS public television on Monday, Interior Minister Alain Berset repeated that the government wants any future waves of Covid to be dealt with more at the cantonal level – a stance which has been met with ambivalence by the cantons themselves, who recently called on the government to set up a federal crisis management team to help deal with future emergencies.

The government has until the end of September this year to respond to the audit committee’s report.

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