Did the Swiss government listen to the right experts during the COVID-19 crisis?
An NZZ am Sonntag investigation into the response to the coronavirus crisis by: Stefan Bühler, Anja Burri, Michael Furger, Lukas Häuptli, Peter Hossli, Theres Lüthi, Franziska Pfister and Rafaela Roth.
This article, translated and slightly edited for clarity, was originally published in the June 7, 2020, edition of the NZZ am Sonntag. Slight changes have been made to reflect the date of publication.
Confronted with the coronavirus crisis, epidemiologist Marcel Salathé compares Switzerland to an airplane. Something is wrong, and the aircraft is losing altitude. The passengers notice. Using the PA system, the pilots claim that everything is fine. Back in row 34 however, a few people have realized what is happening, but locked in their cockpit, the pilots aren't listening. Salathé doesn’t name names, but who he means is clear: he is one of the passengers in row 34, the pilots in the cockpit are the Swiss government (Federal Council) and the top people at the Swiss Federal Office for Public Health (FOPH)—first among them the now-retired head of its "Communicable Diseases" section, Daniel Koch, “Mr. Coronavirus”. Should you want to break down the history of the crisis in Switzerland into a few truths, one of them must be the deep rift between epidemiologists at several research institutes and the civil servants in Bern. Both sides are convinced the other side is misjudging the situation. This is not, in and of itself, a problem. Except that we now know the politicians were listening to one side and not the other. Daniel Koch's aversion to external scientists might have been the main reason why the Federal Council dithered for such a long time before suddenly having to bring the country to a complete standstill over a few days, creating problems whose consequences will likely be felt for a long time to come. It was classic emergency braking: it came late, and it came strong. Why weren’t the brakes applied earlier? Could a more progressive response have prevented the lockdown? What happened during these crucial days in Bern's conference halls or in the meeting rooms of the big banks planning the rescue? Why was there a shortage of masks at the outset of the crisis, and why is there now a glut in the millions? We break our investigation of the crisis into five acts: Outbreak, Response, Procurement, Bailout, and Lobbying.
What was going to hit the world, and thus Switzerland with the pathogen, was pretty clear early on and became more precise on January 5. On that day, The WHO issued a warning: “Pneumonia of unknown cause—China." That warning registered both with the Federal Office of Public Health in Köniz, near Bern, and across the country with the epidemiologists at universities and in research laboratories. From this moment on, there were two kinds of reactions: on the one hand, the scientists who quickly reached the conclusion that the situation could become very serious, as the virus would spread worldwide, resulting in many deaths. On the other, the Federal Health authorities and the body politic, who saw no reason to act differently. To wit, Isabelle Moret, the speaker of the Lower House, one of the highest elected citizens of the land. On January 12, she sets off on a five-day trip to China to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Switzerland’s diplomatic relations with China.
On January 22, from Davos, Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset says: “We are very well prepared.”
Moret jets back and forth across China, before returning to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 17. According to an attendee, during one of the many side events, she cheerily recounts her meeting with a Chinese minister who had just returned from Wuhan. The seriousness of the situation seems not to have registered with her yet, or with most of the WEF participants. On January 22, from Davos, Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset says: “We are very well prepared.” The next day, the Chinese authorities impose a lockdown on the entire city of Wuhan. For the first time since the WHO warning earlier in the month, the Federal Office of Public Health is suddenly reported to be “rather worried.” A few days later, on January 29, the Federal Council discusses the virus in detail for the first time during its weekly meeting. By then, Covid-19 has already spread to 17 other countries and has reached Europe: France reports its first cases, Bavaria a first positive test. There are around 4,500 infected people and over 106 dead in Wuhan. The Swiss government calls for health checks at airports. Alain Berset, the Swiss Health Minister, tells his fellow cabinet members that the Federal Office for Public Health is in constant contact with the health ministers in each canton. People returning from China are alerted. A hotline is set up. Then, as the traditional February skiing begins, the Government, the administration, and the Parliament head to the mountains. It is at the very same time that the situation worsens and that the scientific community gets a better idea of the dangers posed by Covid-19. Two renowned Swiss epidemiologists, Christian Althaus and Julien Riou publish a paper in “Eurosurveillance”, a scientific journal. One of their key findings is that the virus will spread globally. “It was clear that the situation did not look good at that point,” says Althaus. As he pours over the results of his analysis, he decides to sell his portfolio of stocks. Althaus and Riou’s study echoes throughout the world’s scientific community. It is published on January 30, the same day that the WHO declares the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). “From that point on, a task force should have been put together,” says Althaus in retrospect. Yet, nothing happens. The weekly cabinet meeting of the Swiss Government is canceled for the holidays. Frustration is rising within the scientific community. It is left wondering if Daniel Koch’s Federal Office of Public Health understands the seriousness of the situation and if it has enough in-house epidemiological expertise. Not to mention, is it open to hearing from the expert scientific community at large? The answer seems to be no. During the month of January, Christian Althaus reaches out several times to the FOPH to offer his help, even calling Koch on his direct line. He sends him a volley of emails preceding the publication of his paper in Eurosurveillance, telling him that he “could provide him with helpful information when secondary infections occur in Switzerland.” In vain. Althaus ends up writing directly to the Swiss Government. In response to our questions, Koch tells the NZZ am Sonntag that “Mr. Althaus never tried to contact me and never issued a warning to the FOPH.” Instead, Koch says, Christian Althaus went directly to the media with his model. But the emails from Althaus tell a different story, contradicting Koch.
It seems increasingly clear: A few weeks shy of an official retirement postponed by the crisis, the 65-year-old Koch does not want to have anything to do with the younger epidemiologists. He is convinced that their research is of little use. In his eyes, the models coming from Althaus and his colleagues have too few elements to reliably predict the spread of the virus. They are based on unfinished algorithms, he says. The theoretical approaches of research science are unsuitable for practical implementation.
On February 26, in an interview in the daily Swiss-French newspaper “Le Temps,” Didier Pittet says that he expects “a few isolated cases”
Koch and the FOPH rely on other information. “We have 30 years of experience with flu curves. We know very well what predictions can be made in the event of an epidemic.” Koch uses his own network of practitioners. Didier Pittet (an infectious diseases expert and the director of the Infection Control Programme and WHO Collaborating Centre on Patient Safety, University Hospital of Geneva) is in close contact with him. He, too, is calm about the pandemic. On February 26, in an interview in the daily Swiss-French newspaper “Le Temps,” Didier Pittet says that he expects “a few isolated cases” in Switzerland. There is no reason to be alarmed. At this point, the situation in neighboring Italy is already out of control. Schools, museums and universities are closed, entire regions are quarantined. The FOPH clearly assesses the danger in these first weeks of 2020 completely differently than the epidemiologists and the WHO. And the authorities are apparently not ready to hear the other side. A suspicion arises: Could it be that the Federal Council was not sufficiently well informed? Did it rely only on information provided by the FOPH? The epidemiologists' findings may have been shared with the Federal Council, but two of the most important national research bodies in this country—chaired by epidemiologists: the National Fund’s Research Council by Matthias Egger and the Academies of Sciences by Marcel Tanner—were not consulted. “How is it possible,” wonders Salathé, “that you invest heavily in a highly competent and expensive research sector, but don’t use the science at such a crucial moment?” The hypothesis of an information gap at the Federal Council level squares also with the fact that not much is happening in “Official Bern” during February, the month during which Switzerland is unsuspectingly heading towards lockdown.
When the Federal Council meets again after the ski holidays, travel and trade restrictions for China are on the agenda. The first few corona tests are performed, and they turn out to be negative. There is no external cause for alarm. The situation abroad also seems to be under control. The media and the government attention are mobilized by the “Crypto Affair” (the revelations that the CIA had been using Swiss rigged cryptographic machines to spy on the world), distracting the political authorities from the coronavirus crisis. In the meantime, from the scientists’ point of view, the time window during which the lockdown could have been prevented is closing. “The choice between the collapse of the healthcare system and the lockdown with economic damage might not have been necessary,” argues Marcel Salathé. He believes that there would have been a third option for a while, a gentler easing into restrictions, more normal, maybe a state like today. “The WHO communicated very early and very clearly that the short time window should be used to prepare for an outbreak,” says Althaus. “I sometimes wondered if the responsible authorities in Switzerland followed the WHO's press conferences.” When asked what should have been done in February, when there was still time to prevent hitting the brakes so violently and putting the country into lockdown, Salathé answers: “One should have tried everything to keep track of the infection chains. One should have tested more intensively. But it would have meant that the government should have made testing available earlier and secured the supply of hygiene masks by the end of January. Closing the border earlier, especially with Italy, would also have helped.” Would the crisis have been better weathered if the Federal Government had heeded the epidemiologists' warnings? The question cannot be answered. One important fact remains: the FOPH achieved its most important objective: to prevent the healthcare system from collapsing. And for sure, epidemiologists' models can also be wrong—some of them were. But still, during those early days, they were not listened to. Christian Althaus and Marcel Salathé eventually decide to go public. On February 26, Christian Althaus gives an interview to the NZZ that receives a wide echo. Under the title “One Does Not Have to Quarantine Half of Switzerland,” Althaus shares his frustration: “I couldn’t understand why we would let the pandemic hit Switzerland as if nothing happened. That’s why I decided to speak out.” Other media pick up the number of “30,000 deaths”, which the two NZZ journalists quote as a possible “worst-case scenario” that, according to Althaus “cannot be ruled out."
On Tuesday, February 25, around noon, the Federal Council's jet takes off from Bern-Belp. Onboard: Minister of Health Berset, two FOPH senior members, two advisors from Berset's personal staff, and his head of communications. Destination: Rome. The Italian Government has invited the health ministers from neighboring countries plus Germany to show how well-prepared Italy is for the crisis. "It was supposed to be a PR campaign by the Italian Minister of Health," says a member of the Swiss traveling group. The meeting will turn into a disaster.
At about the same time, for the first time in Switzerland, someone has tested positive. At 5 pm that day, the top FOPH people, Daniel Koch and Pascal Strupler call a press conference at the government press center and try to reassure the general public: “There currently exists a moderate risk of infection,” for the population says Strupler. When asked whether the upcoming Basel Carnival ought to be canceled, his colleague Koch states that “for the moment there are no plans to tighten the measures.” Koch's answer is moot the moment he offers it. In Rome, Berset and his traveling companions realize that the Italian health authorities and government have already lost control of the epidemic. “We became aware that the situation was just exploding,” says one participant. The Swiss delegation flies back to Bern late in the evening. So late that there is not enough time to write a report to be shared in advance with the other government members as it is customary. As the returning plane crosses the Alps, Alain Berset understands that he will have to switch to crisis mode. The next morning, Wednesday, February 26, Berset informs his government colleagues verbally. A secret meeting is scheduled for Friday, giving him and his aides time to hash out the first measures. His staff consists of just under 10 people who usually meet every morning at 8 am—a meeting referred to as the “morning prayer” by its participants. The meeting moves to a basement room in the Health Ministry, large enough to allow physical distancing. The details of Berset's proposals to the Federal Council are worked out. On Friday, February 28, he goes to the Cabinet meeting with two major proposals: the first one calls for declaring “a special situation”, a rule that gives the government increased and exceptional power. The second one is a ban on all gatherings and events of more than 1,000 people. The government agrees, sealing the cancellation of the Basel Carnival.
At that point, the Swiss government is moving faster than other European governments and believes this is giving some breathing room. The following week, only minor adjustments are made: two army ambulances are sent to Ticino for support. The mood is tainted by a sense of “maximum uncertainty”. In Italy, the disease is out of control. In Switzerland, on the surface at least, the situation seems to be calm. On March 4, the cantonal health ministers gather in Bern to share information over a working lunch. Sandwiches in plastic bags are served. The mood is tense, and opinions differ among the attendees. Zurich has not yet announced a single measure, while the minister from Ticino calls for closing the Italian-speaking canton's border with Italy.
But closing the border is not just a public health question for the Federal Council. It is a highly charged political issue since a vote is looming soon in Switzerland on a popular initiative that wishes to restrict the numbers of foreign nationals allowed to cross the borders to work in Switzerland. The Ticino hospitals are highly dependent on cross-border commuters. No neighboring country has yet closed its own borders. Should one really consider such a measure? “The situation could not be compared to any other,” says Rebecca Ruiz, in charge of health in Vaud. “There was permanent uncertainty. It was not a project with milestones, with a beginning and an end.” For Rudolf Hauri, President of the Cantonal Doctors, with the benefit of “hindsight, one can argue that we could have reacted a week earlier. But you have to keep in mind that the situation was just beginning to emerge, we didn't know how it would develop.” Shortly before the outbreak reaches Switzerland, the country seems paralyzed. Nobody seems certain about what to do. Should it act—or wait? Can the worst be avoided? What are other countries doing? Italy goes into lockdown, Austria follows shortly afterward. The pressure from the cantons is increasing. The Health Ministry is in meetings almost round the clock. Meetings with cantonal representatives are held in a grand hall of one of Bern's palaces, Hotel Bellevue. In the “Bernerhof”,--the no less splendid seat of the Finance Ministry—crisis teams and party representatives meet. On March 13, the Federal Council bans events with more than 100 people, imposes limits on catering companies. Border controls with Italy are introduced, school closure is recommended, and the outline of a first rescue package for businesses is made public. Yet, in the narrowest circles of the Government, the idea that the situation might deteriorate quickly had yet to be fully internalized. “We thought we would enjoy a few days' rest,” recalls an advisor to one of the Federal Council’s seven members. Once again, things turned out differently. On the evening of the next day, Saturday, March 14, Ticino closes all restaurants and shops. Four cantons declare a state of emergency on Sunday and ban any gathering of more than 50 people. Parliament urgently recesses its Spring session. The borders between Austria and Germany are closed while the infection numbers explode. For the first time, over 1,000 new coronavirus-infected people are added within 24 hours in Switzerland. The government meets in an emergency meeting on Sunday evening to discuss a lockdown and to decide if the army will be requested to assist in the effort. According to several sources, Minister of Finance Ueli Maurer balks at any new measures, while Defense Minister Viola Amherd goes further and advocates for a curfew. The middle road is chosen: The government will use its executive privilege to temporarily operate under the equivalent of an “emergency decree”. The legal basis for such resolutions is drawn up during the night. On Monday, they are approved by the Federal Council. At 5 pm, Federal President Simonetta Sommaruga, Karin Keller-Sutter, Viola Amherd, and Alain Berset appear before the media. Back in January already, using his model, epidemiologist Christian Althaus had projected that the virus would likely spread everywhere in late February—including in Switzerland. Yet, to this day, Daniel Koch the now-retired Swiss “Coronavirus Czar”, maintains that “nothing that Althaus said has happened.” Eventually, however, a group of epidemiologists is invited to Bern to meet with the Government's representatives. It's March 18, two days after the lockdown has gone into effect. In Lausanne, as Marcel Salathé prepares to leave, he tells his family that he might not be back in the evening. He expects the Swiss government to set up a task force, in which case he will book himself a hotel room in Bern. But the meeting's only purpose seems to be to smooth the atmosphere. The scientists are heard before between being gently dismissed. Salathé spends the night at home. Three days later, he tweets: “In these weeks my confidence in politics has been shaken.” The fact that Althaus and Salathé are publicly critical is not well received. Salathé is advised to tone it down, he says. “I had to think about how to convey a scientific truth without treading on someone in Bern. It was almost like in North Korea. We were told: You are right, but if you say it too aggressively in the media, the door for a task force will close.” He refuses to say who gave him the advice. On March 31, the Federal Council finally sets up a task force. Salathé and Althaus join it.
“Hygiene masks are of no use to people who are not sick. It has not been proven that the masks have an effect on the spread of the virus.” Those words, spoken on February 27 by the FOPH's Daniel Koch before the media, might remain one of the most controversial statements made during the height of the coronavirus crisis in Switzerland. Koch’s words are surprising: barely two years before, the FOPH had stated in its pandemic preparation plan that “protective masks reduce the risk of transmission and can, therefore, be used throughout the entire pandemic wave.” The plan specifies who should have and in what quantities, hygiene, and respiratory masks in stock: hospitals, care home services, medical practices, retirement and nursing homes, and private households. Hygiene masks are intended for the general public, respiratory masks for health workers. In truth, the pandemic plan may not be worth more than the paper on which it is written. Regulations on mask stocks are non-binding recommendations. Not everybody follows them. The mask question represents one of the most confusing episodes of the Covid-19 pandemic in Switzerland. It again creates the suspicion that the Swiss government didn't take the full measure of what would befall Switzerland and resulted in a planning debacle. Masks were first discussed by the Swiss government during its February 12 weekly meeting. A concept for their use was in the works, we were told, but their “availability ” was limited. And, as it happened, when the worst of the pandemic hit, Switzerland found itself with a massive shortage of masks.
The national reserves, managed by the army, contained around 13 million masks—barely enough to cover the needs of the Swiss population over three or four days. “The hospitals should have held more,” recognizes Daniel Koch today. He also admits that the federal government also failed to provide additional protective equipment: “Such consumer goods have been completely neglected.” Could it be that Daniel Koch’s and with him, Health Minister Alain Berset's recommendations not to wear masks were not taken for medical and sanitary reasons but because of a lack of supply? The suspicion persists—even if Koch says today: “My statements about the masks had nothing to do with their scarcity. We would, in any case, have recommended wearing masks outdoors.” Koch sticks to his stance, but across Switzerland, health authorities have taken a different one. And Alain Berset himself changed his tune in an interview with CH Media: “The scientific knowledge about the virus is making tremendous progress, and this also has an impact on the question of whether and when masks can be useful. I, therefore, do not rule out that we recommend a mask with the loosening in certain situations.” What might have accounted for his change of heart? On March 23, 2020, the number of people who tested positive for coronavirus in one day rose to 1,456, the highest number ever recorded on one day in Switzerland.
Acting with urgency, the Federal Council decides to transfer the responsibility for the procurement of medical goods, including masks, to the army. Defense Minister Viola Amherd appoints Brigadier Markus Näf as the so-called federal procurement coordinator. In civilian life, the militia officer works as a lawyer on Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse. The Defense Department spokesman says: “Markus Näf knows the market very well. And he has expertise in purchasing goods worldwide.”
Näf has his marching orders—and a lot of money to spend. He is tasked with buying almost 400 million hygiene masks and 60 million respiratory masks for Switzerland. His total budget allocated by the government is around 1 billion Swiss francs. “Masks have to be found” he is told, “at whatever costs.” And cost a lot they do. Suddenly, half the world’s countries are frantically trying to buy them and, above all, the United States. On April 2, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta recommends that all Americans wear masks in public. The market is overheating. “Before the corona crisis, a hygiene mask would cost between 2 and 5 centimes,” recalls Markus Näf. “At the end of March, we paid up to 90 centimes.” Competitors are not only other countries but also the cantons, municipalities, hospitals, home care services, and old people’s homes in Switzerland, all competing in a “catch as many as you can for yourself” system.
It’s not just masks that are in demand. Army helicopters fly in and collect respirators from the production sites of Hamilton Medical in Ittingen and Ems in March and April. Hamilton has doubled its capacity by the end of April—employees also work on weekends. At the end of April, 600 devices were delivered. The Federal Council steps once more on the emergency brakes: It decides to centralize large parts of the procurement system for medical goods and medicines at the federal level by means of an emergency decree.
Between the end of March and today, the federal government buys 250 million hygiene masks. It sells around 40 million of them at cost price to the cantons and the retail trade. 90 million masks are currently still in production in China or on their way from there. And 120 million are in depots across Switzerland. These are now full—almost two months after the outbreak of the Corona crisis in Switzerland.
It is late afternoon on Tuesday, March 10. At the foot of the Üetliberg hill in Zurich, in the Üetlihof office complex, Andreas Gerber is getting ready to go home. He works at Credit Suisse, where he is in charge of small and medium-sized companies' accounts. At about 6 pm, his phone rings. It is Thomas Gottstein, CEO of Credit Suisse, in the job since mid-February. "We have to do something for Swiss SMEs," he tells Gerber, sketching out a broad plan: banks should find a simple way to give interest-free loans to companies to keep them financially afloat during the lockdown. "I want a proposal by tomorrow morning," Gottstein demands. "How would you structure loans if you were the Swiss government?" he asks Gerber.
Gerber works through the night with his team and, on two A4 pages, outlines a plan for CHF 40 billion in bridge loans. They are part of a CHF 72 billion aid package for the economy, the largest in Swiss history. Leading the effort are Credit Suisse and UBS, Switzerland's largest banks. A few weeks ago, they were enemies, not just competitors, facing off in the Tidjane Thiam and Iqbal Khan 'spying scandal.' Gerber's team's plan is boiled down to five points: 1. Companies with liquidity shortages should receive money. 2. The collaterals ought to be provided by the Swiss government. 3. The banks are in charge of the loans. 4. Refinancing is done through the Swiss National Bank. 5. The Federal government should appoint a body to ensure coordination and guarantee processing among those involved. By morning, Gottstein has his proposal. By phone, the CEO onboards a few key people: Mark Branson of FINMA, the financial market supervision agency, National Bank President Thomas Jordan, and Finance Minister Ueli Maurer. Maurer tells Gottstein he’d been thinking about a similar plan himself. He directs him to Daniela Stoffel, State Secretary for International Financial Matters, the SIF. Finally, Gottstein calls Sergio Ermotti, the CEO of UBS, his direct competitor. The German-speaking Gottstein and the Italian-speaking Ermotti talk in English. "I think it's a good idea," Ermotti says about Gottstein’s proposal. Gottstein instructs his team to reach out to the heads of the cantonal banks of Vaud, and Zurich, and to another bank, Raiffeisen. An external law firm - Baker McKenzie - is brought in to assist in the process. Gottstein is determined to avoid any haggling over his proposal by the respective banks' in-house counsels. Bankers work until the early hours of the morning until March 20. During the day, they talk amongst themselves, before taking their concerns to the government through the SIF. "Sometimes it was tough," Gerber recalls. "We always had to wait until the Federal Council agreed. The emergency law was in force, but the Federal Council had to be certain what it was allowed to do first." All sessions are conducted via conference call. Gerber works 13 draining hours on the first day. Conference calls are now limited to 3 to 4 hours. When Gerber emails for help in processing the enormous amount of loan requests, 160 employees volunteer over 24 hours. The banks have agreed that the circumstances should not be exploited to entice customers away from each other. Companies have to apply for loans with the banks where they have an existing relationship. Existing loans cannot be refinanced with Covid-19 loans. The banks are in charge of coordination. "It's like war, you have a common enemy," said Ermotti. "Fighting the virus is an absolute priority." Questions relating to the rescue package remain until the very last hours before the March 20 government press conference, when it is going to be made public. For the banks, concerns arise from Finance Minister Maurer's demand that the money should be made available to customers within thirty minutes after a loan request has been received. "It was clear to everyone that no detailed credit check would take place during this time," says Gerber. Instead of checking the applicants' creditworthiness, they settle on a 'plausibility check' that takes into account the company's turnover and sales and other information requested on the application form. Towards the end of the process, UBS's CEO, Sergio Ermotti comes up with an unusual suggestion: "I said from the start that we banks should not make anything from these loans, that will certainly be the case for UBS." Banks draw the money from the SNB at a negative interest rate of 0.75 percent. If they pass it on without interest, they earn 0.75 percent, minus costs. "In my opinion, this net profit does not belong to the banks," says Ermotti. He agrees with Gottstein to put the profits into a foundation for businesses in need of further emergency financial assistance.
It is March 20, 2020. Switzerland has been in lockdown for four days. In Bern, through the voice of its Minister of the Economy, Guy Parmelin, the Swiss government is hours away from unveiling an economic rescue package worth a couple of dozen billion Swiss francs. But in Zurich, the financial capital of the country, while applauding the government’s plan, another idea takes hold: Government support is good, but an end to the lockdown would be better.
In Zurich, the financial community’s trust in the ability of the Minister of Economic Affairs and his State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) to steer the debate on the Covid-19 crisis is limited. It's not an easy period for Guy Parmelin. Several members of his family have been infected by the virus. As Minister of the Economy, belonging to the conservative People's Party like his colleague Ueli Maurer, he tries to get involved in the debate, but he focuses his efforts on issues that Zurich considers secondary, such as reopening garden centers, hardware stores, and zoos. It is another minister who has become the public image of Switzerland's response to the pandemic, both in the media and in the Federal Council. Alain Berset, a Socialist. Health is his top priority. In early April, he tells the Sunday paper SonntagsZeitung that he "has no good news for the economy." "Those who wish to ease the measures too quickly would actually extend the crisis," he declares. And it was not yet possible to say when the first easing might be considered. And this is when the machinery of Switzerland's most powerful association, Economiesuisse, and the representative of hundreds of hoteliers and restaurants, GastroSuisse, spring into action. As the lobbying group for Swiss business, Economiesuisse has access to highly confidential information through its network. GastroSuisse relies more on what it learns from the press and media. Both think they will be successful in their campaign. "Very quickly we asked ourselves: How can we get out of this crisis?" recalls Economiesuisse's director Monika Rühl. "It was, of course, about people's health, but also about preventing social damage and securing our prosperity." Bilateral conversations and large virtual meetings take place within the umbrella organization. They coalesce into a plan titled 'Living with the virus. Gradual return to normal'. Economiesuisse members formulate three goals: avoid further tightening, extend the initial easing to as many sectors and businesses as possible, and prevent the Swiss administration and federal offices from dictating the protection rules for reopening. Shortly after Alain Berset's interview in early April, the business representatives' voices are heard in Bern: Berset's aides reach out to the top echelons of the Swiss industry. At the beginning of April, the Federal Council invites business leaders into its crisis management team. Economiesuisse President, Heinz Karrer, is regularly on the phone with ministers, and other Economiesuisse officials use their contacts in the government administration. On Good Friday, April 10, the lobbying group sends its final plan for reopening the country to Bern. Six days later, the Federal Council decides on the first easing measures. Casimir Platzer, GastroSuisse's President, chooses a different approach. After Easter, he sits in front of his laptop and watches the Swiss government's live media briefing. Most of his influential organization’s members - hotel owners, innkeepers, and hospitality entrepreneurs, also tune in. The day ends in disappointment for all of them. The Federal Council has plans for hairdressers, gardeners, and zoos. But not a single word is said about restaurants and hotels. Platzer publicly calls the government’s silence "brazen." In consensual Switzerland’s political world, this amounts to an escalation of words. But Platzer gets what he wants, an audience. Berset's entourage reaches out to him, encouraging him first to be less confrontational. On April 21, Platzer finally gets to air his concerns directly to the Minister. The voice of the business has finally been heard. On April 29, the government announces it will ease restrictions earlier than planned. As of May 11, not only shops, markets and schools will reopen, but also museums, libraries, and restaurants can open. Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga, like Berset a Socialist, justifies the surprising decision by the decline in the number of infections. She says nothing about the intense lobbying that took place behind the doors.
This article, translated and slightly adapted, was originally published in the June 7, 2020 edition of the NZZ am Sonntag. Slight changes have been made to reflect the date of publication. All illustrations © Rahel Eisenring