Swiss voters will cast their ballots in an unprecedented vote this weekend that will decide the future of the country’s so-called “COVID law”.
In a referendum on Sunday, voters will be asked whether or not they support the Federal COVID-19 Act – a bill approved in September that created a legal basis for COVID measures that were initially enforced by emergency decree.
The bill, which has seen several amendments since its approval, also outlines spending to help mitigate the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and covers a range of aspects related to the pandemic, including health expenses, labour protection, border closures and more.
If voters reject the bill, including its amendments, it will be dissolved by the end of September – one year from when it was approved.
The government will still be able to enforce certain coronavirus measures, Roger Nordmann, the leader of the Socialist group in the Federal Assembly, told Euronews. However, other components of the bill, including measures meant to mitigate the financial impact of the pandemic, will be rendered obsolete come September.
How did COVID end up on the ballot?
The question of whether citizens approve of Switzerland’s COVID law will be one of five on the ballot in Sunday’s referendum.
The COVID law vote comes after campaigners, led by citizen group Friends of the Constitution, managed to collect 90,000 signatures to force a vote on Switzerland’s COVID law.
In Switzerland, parliamentary decisions can be challenged in a referendum if at least 50,000 signatures are gathered within 100 days with approval from parliament.
‘Our civil rights were taken away’
In an interview with Euronews, Friends of the Constitution spokesperson Michael Bubendorf said members of the organisation felt that it was important for Swiss voters to be able to weigh in on the government’s COVID rules.
“It was very important for us to have a debate about all of these measures that have been taken against the people of Switzerland to contain the pandemic,” he said.
“Lots of our civil rights were taken away from us, our liberties were taken away,” he said. “And the government is obliged to make sure that these measures that were taken are actually serving the cause…and that never really happened.”
Opponents of the COVID law have argued that the measure is necessary as most measures could be enforced without giving the government special powers.
Bubendorf said he and other members of the organisation are also not fully convinced that all of Switzerland’s coronavirus measures were productive, including the country’s lockdown rules, despite cases declining in Switzerland following the enforcement of COVID measures.
He also said that the group has concerns about the economic and mental health impacts of measures enforced during the pandemic.
“Of course, the economic impact is vast and it’s going to show its real face in the months and years to come, but there’s also a heavy impact on the wellbeing of people in general – on their physical and mental health,” he said.
‘They are not friends of the constitution’
Nordmann told Euronews that while he laments the economic and mental health impacts of restrictions, he is confident that coronavirus measures enforced by the government have helped save lives.
“It’s clear that people are suffering under the restrictions. But it would be worse…without the restrictions. It would have exploded,” he said.
He also noted that Switzerland’s COVID lockdown has not been as strict as those enforced in other European countries.
“In Switzerland, we had a half-lockdown. We never fully closed,” he said. “It was not so hard as it has been in some places, like the UK or in France,” he said.
The country has also seen a gradual easing of restrictions, he said, with people now able to enjoy indoor and outdoor dining, as well as meet outdoors in private gatherings of up to 50 and indoors in groups of up to 30 people.
Nordmann said the greatest opposition to COVID rules seems to have come from members of the Friends of the Constitution, with the politician asserting that “on public transportation, for example, everybody accepts the masks. The only exception is some ‘Friends of the Constitution’ with pins saying ‘Friends of the Constitution’. But 99 per cent of people respect the rules.”
The party leader said that in his view, the organisation seeking to do away with Switzerland’s COVID law is not a “friend of the Constitution”.
“They call themselves friends of the constitution but in the end, the effect of how they are acting would be to reduce the legitimacy of the legality of the [COVID law]…So I think they are not friends of the constitution. They are enemies of the constitution”.
Nordmann further stressed that opposing the COVID law in Sunday’s referendum will not see the end of coronavirus restrictions.
However, he warned that it could temporarily put future economic support for those impacted by the coronavirus pandemic at risk until a new measure can be approved through parliament.
“If the law is rejected, nothing will change for the sanitary measures,” he said. “It’s all an economic bill – wearing masks and social distancing will not be impacted by the referendum.”
Nordmann said he believed members of Friends of the Constitution were focusing on the COVID law “because they cannot attack the sanitary measures”.
“It’s a substitute,” he said.
Do Swiss voters support the country’s COVID measures?
The Socialist party leader said he is confident, however, that Swiss voters will support the COVID bill.
Generally, he said, “the policy controls are accepted” by residents of Switzerland.
A recent survey conducted by the Sotomo Research Institute found growing support for the government’s handling of the COVID crisis, with those with a “high level of trust” in the government’s handling rising from 32 to 49 per cent in the March survey.
Still, Bubendorf stressed that with tens of thousands of signatures collected to put the COVID law on the ballot, “it is not just a few very weird people who are in opposition to these measures”.
“It’s important for the government to see and for society to see that these are not extremists. These are people in the midst of our society,” he said.