No kissing please, we're Swiss. Coronavirus attitudes compared with UK

Coronavirus and swiss flag

Our attitudes in the UK to coronavirus are important both in terms of delaying onset of the virus but also as an indication of the scale of the economic shock - when and if it gets worse.


This blog seeks to set our attitudes within a wider context by comparing them to Switzerland.  How are the Swiss people reacting? You would think that adjoining Italy, tensions would be high. Are there any lessons we can learn?


Switzerland has almost 300 confirmed cases - similar to the UK, although we have 8 times the population.  The Federal authorities were very open about the issues and were very quick to launch an information campaign " Protect yourselves and others " - complete with videos from how to hand-wash or sneeze as well as recommendations to drop kissing as part of everyday greetings. (Kissing is not such a problem for normally reserved Brits.)


A 24 hour, information line was set up early and staffing increased to cope with demand. The Federal authorities have instigated a ban on any event with over 1000 people attending, such as the Geneva Motor show and high risk pensioners have been asked to avoid travelling on public transport at peak times.


Despite the proximity on the European Epicentre in Northern Italy a survey questioning over 1000 Swiss residents from March 3-6th polled by a Swiss Newspaper found that the population remained calm. Two thirds feeling little or no threat from the virus with only 8% of those people questioned feeling the threat to be high. The Swiss motto remains caution - yes, panic – no, and nine out of ten people think they are well informed.


The Swiss population are heeding the advice of the local authorities as 93% of Swiss undertake frequent hand washing, 76% avoid shaking hands and broadly half are not travelling abroad. One novel approach in an open plan office is for workers sitting alongside each other to take alternate days to work from home.  


In Switzerland restaurants are still busy and panic buying and hoarding are almost non-existent.


Comparing this to the UK, shows a very different picture. A recent 'You-Gov' survey conducted between 28th Feb and March 1st showed that the British public are least likely to take personal precautions compared to other countries. A coronavirus survey by Brandwatch found that over half of people questioned were concerned or very concerned. As a result, many are changing their shopping habits- with fewer people eating out. It’s estimated that restaurants alone currently will lose £65.7m per week. It's also not surprising that panic buying in shops are leaving shelves looking increasingly empty as hand soaps, disinfectant, toilet rolls and dried goods such as pasta are cleared.


However, the question remains - why is there such a difference in public attitude? I think fundamentally it is about a lack of trust, a lack of information and newspaper speculation around worst case scenarios. Swiss politics is less confrontational and with Coronavirus, everyone will work for the common good rather than calling out and mistrusting their political opponents. Compare Alain Berset, the Swiss Health Minister who is widely trusted in Switzerland to manage a crisis - to our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson - whose claims about NHS readiness is hotly disputed by many of his own doctors.


In Switzerland the media are reporting without unnecessary speculation. The Coronavirus only made third place on the 9am news with unemployment and travel news ahead of it. When it did come on it focused on the clamp down in Northern Italy and not on cases in Switzerland. This completely different in the UK - where our newspapers are speculating on what could happen in worst case scenarios - millions could be forced to work from home and people could be asked to stop eating out, or shopping in a bid to keep them away from others


I would argue that there are several lessons to be learned from this comparison. They are: 


  • We cannot change the way our press reports events so the Government needs to step up its information campaign and be more open and factual, whilst providing more resources to local government to strengthen local communications. It is also important for Government to decide who should lead the campaign. Is it Matt or Boris? At the moment it's a bit confusing with mixed messages.


  • Local authorities, LRF's and charities need to assist in delivering wider Government messages as well as reassuring their own communities. Shortages caused by panic buying creates their own set of problems - particularly for the most vulnerable and elderly. Those most at risk from the virus.


  • Switzerland was focused by the events unfolding in Italy. If the Government has to take tough decisions, please tell us as soon as possible and act earlier.  I think people will be supportive if they feel that they are being told the entire story and not edited highlights.


This blog is not meant to be critical of the Government or local authorities. I firmly believe that they are effectively building a new infrastructure to deal with the problem and your council is doing a lot behind the scenes to protect the vulnerable. Whilst Switzerland is an interesting comparison we have to recognise that we are a much bigger country with different issues to resolve. But we have in our corner one of the best health care systems in the world.


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