Coronavirus: Federal Council proposes test offensive to accompany relaxation of measures – free tests for everyone

Bern, 05.03.2021 - The Federal Council wants to massively expand testing in parallel to easing coronavirus restrictions. It is proposing that the Confederation should assume the cost of all tests to encourage more widespread testing. In order to improve the prevention and early detection of coronavirus outbreaks, companies and schools are to conduct regular testing. Employees at companies that test frequently can be exempted from the quarantine requirement for persons who have had contact with someone who has tested positive. In addition, the Federal Council wants to provide each member of the public with five free self-tests a month as soon as reliable tests are available. To ensure that everyone can be tested immediately, all tests in pharmacies and test centres will be free of charge, even for people without symptoms. The cost of expanding testing is estimated at over CHF 1 billion. The Federal Council will make a final decision after consulting the cantons on 12 March.

In order to interrupt chains of infection in a targeted manner, it is necessary to rapidly identify who is carrying the virus. Testing is therefore a key element in pandemic control. Now that testing and laboratory capacities are available and self-tests can soon be used, the Federal Council wants to massively expand testing with free tests for all. This will happen in parallel to the gradual relaxing of restrictions on social activities and economic life. Because the more infectious virus variants are spreading at an increasing rate, there must be stricter prevention and earlier detection of local outbreaks.

Free tests expected from 15 March
The Federal Council has expanded the testing strategy several times. Currently the Confederation not only funds testing for persons with symptoms, but also for asymptomatic persons in care homes and schools, and to combat local outbreaks. The Confederation is now to assume the cost of all tests from 15 March.

Regular testing in companies and schools
People working in companies and attending schools are to undergo regular testing using pooled saliva samples. In this form of testing, the test persons' samples are not analysed individually, but in a single pooled sample. This can greatly reduce the amount of material and time required. Regular testing in companies is not a substitute for precautionary measures, but serves as an additional form of protection. Participation is voluntary. The cantons will be able to exempt persons working for companies that test frequently from the requirement to quarantine in the case of contact with an infected person.

Self-tests for everyone
Success in controlling the pandemic has, since the beginning, relied on the public's sense of responsibility. The Federal Council now wants to make it easier for people to self-test as well. It would like everyone to be able to test themselves regularly, even if they have no symptoms, and to have access to five self-tests per month. However, as there is not yet enough information available on the use of self-tests in asymptomatic persons, the Federal Office of Public Health has not yet approved these types of test. The Federal Council therefore proposes that the Confederation also meet the cost of all rapid tests in pharmacies and test centres, including for cross-border commuters.

More testing also involves risk
Expanding the testing strategy carries a degree of risk, as each test result just gives a snapshot of a person's state of health. What is more, self-tests are much less reliable than PCR tests. A negative test should not lead to a false sense of security or irresponsible behaviour. It will still be necessary to wear a mask and observe social distancing. People who have a positive rapid test or self-test result need to take a PCR test and go
into isolation immediately. It is still not decided whether people will need to show a negative test result in order to take part in certain events or access certain areas.

Cost estimated at CHF 1 billion
The cost of expanding the testing strategy is estimated at over CHF 1 billion in 2021. The statutory basis is provided in the COVID-19 Act, which is in force until the end of the year.

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