GENEVA (AFP) - Switzerland announced on Friday (Dec 11) that all shops, bars and restaurants must close from 7pm in order to fight a resurgent coronavirus that is now stirring political and cultural tensions.
The Alpine country, which will apply the new rules from Saturday until Jan 22, has some of the worst per capita infection rates in Europe, and the government fears the situation could spin out of control over Christmas.
"We're witnessing an exponential increase," President Simonetta Sommaruga told a press conference in the capital Bern. "Our hospitals and our health workers are being stretched to the limit."
In March, during the first wave of infections, Switzerland was not hit as hard by Covid-19 deaths and did not impose as strict a lockdown as some other European states.
It eased off those measures in stages, and many praised the Swiss handling of the crisis, with the emphasis placed on individual responsibility.
But relations among Switzerland's linguistic groups have frayed and government responses have come under fire since a new wave hit in the last three months.
"Initially, it was a health crisis," Swiss Press Club head Pierre Ruetschi wrote in the Tribune de Geneve newspaper. "Very quickly, it became economic. That's normal. Now, it is also cultural, linguistic, political."
From just three new cases recorded on June 1, infections rose slowly but steadily before rocketing in October, when cases, hospitalisations and deaths began doubling from week to week.
The second wave initially hit the French-speaking west and the Italian-speaking south hardest.
With the government having handed the reins to the regional authorities, those cantons imposed measures to control the virus.
The virus burden then shifted towards the German-speaking majority - and cantons which were in no rush to act despite the government's repeated pleadings.
Many in the Francophone cantons, which were beginning to loosen their restrictions, feel they are now paying the price for a lack of action in the German-speaking areas.
With its stepping out and stepping in approach, "the Federal Council has created real chaos", leader of the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party - the biggest in the lower house of Parliament - Mr Marco Chiesa told public broadcaster RTS.
With a population of 8.6 million, Switzerland is logging around 5,000 new cases and 100 deaths a day - a base level Health Minister Alain Berset said was far too high to start from if infections begin to double again.
Even so, the new measures are not as strict as in other European countries.
Those regions which have the virus more under control can extend the closing time until 11pm, conditions permitting.
All regions can extend it until 1am on the nights of Dec 24 and 31.
Some 372,329 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in Switzerland, while 5,378 have died since the first outbreak.