Easing of Covid-19 restrictions highlights Swiss mask shortage

Currently only healthcare workers and sick people are obliged to wear masks. Keystone / Christian Beutler

The Swiss government says it is doing everything it can to procure face masks, which are still not officially recommended for healthy members of the public. But as businesses slowly prepare to reopen, the key role of masks in the government’s coronavirus health policy is becoming clear. 

This content was published on April 17, 2020 - 12:38

Health Minister Alain Berset admitted on Thursday that Switzerland had been caught napping when it came to having enough masks to go around. While it is not required of the federal government to maintain stocks of masks for the entire population, Switzerland’s pandemic plan does require health institutions to have reserves of essential equipment, including masks. It is the responsibility of the country’s 26 cantons to enforce this.  

“In retrospect, it can be said that very many institutions and facilities did not have these reserves,” Berset told Swiss public broadcaster, SRFExternal link

He said the government was doing everything it could to make up for the shortfall of masks. Earlier the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper reported that the Swiss army had been tasked with procuring 400 million masks by the end of May. Swiss International Air Lines announced that ten cargo flights from China would bring in over 35 million items of personal protection equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves and safety glasses. Who is meant to wear them? 

“We must not forget that wearing masks is still not recommended for a healthy person on the street,” said Berset. Only healthcare workers and sick people are obliged to wear masks, he said.  

However, the easing of coronavirus-related restrictionsExternal link from April 27 is likely to complicate matters. According to online publisher WatsonExternal link, Berset admitted that hairdressers and beauty salons would probably make wearing masks compulsory when they reopen in ten days, and so could DIY stores, garden centres and florists. Will they provide customers with masks? 

Businesses are starting to plan for this. The Swiss Association of Hairdressers has created a digital platform to allow members to place orders for masks directly with suppliers. Another option is letting shoppers improvise. The Association of Swiss Subsidiary Companies has proposed that self-sewn masks and face coverings should be allowed as a fall-back option. And Swiss manufacturers, such as this textile company, are starting to make masks domestically. 

The fact is that there are not enough masks to go around even for those on the frontline of the battle against Covid-19.  

The PharmaSuisse association of pharmacists has stated that not only are there not enough to meet customer demand, but many pharmacies and drugstores even lack masks for their own use. It is also unlikely that Swiss residents can buy masks in supermarkets any time soon. Aldi Switzerland said it was planning to include masks in its range temporarily, but it was not yet clear when this would happen. 

According to the Tages-AnzeigerExternal link, it is hardly surprising that Swiss ministers squirm when asked about the benefits of protective masks. “There are simply not enough masks at the moment, and the government is merely adapting its communication to the prevailing shortage,” it said. 

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