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Switzerland riles Alpine neighbours by keeping its ski resorts open

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As heavy snow closes in on the village of Andermatt, high in the Swiss Alps, local hotelier Johan Granvik gives short shrift to the arguments that have led other EU countries to close their ski resorts. 

“If you go out on a Saturday morning to the grocery shop — you can’t tell me that’s less dangerous than spending five minutes in a télécabine and then being out on the wide open slopes,” said Mr Granvik, who has taken on more than 30 staff for his hotel and restaurant business for the winter season. Closing the pistes to halt coronavirus “makes no sense whatsoever”, he added. 

Standing by the icy river Reuss for a photograph as the snow rakes across the ground, Mr Granvik, 35, said the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic meant bankruptcy was something he recently had to worry about for his seven-year-old business. His boutique hotel Zum Schwarzen Bären depends on a successful winter sports season. Two of his restaurants, the Wachthuus and the Rüti Hütte, are on the pistes. If the lifts do not open, neither can they. 

Across the Alps, in Austria, France, Germany and Italy, ski resorts will be closed for at least a month due to fears that an influx of people will spread the virus. As a result, the winter tourism that is the single most important economic sector in the Alpine regions will be put on hold over its busiest period. But Switzerland — for now — is the exception.

Johan Granvik: ‘I understand shopping for food is a necessity and skiing is not. But at the same time, you cannot take everything away from people — you have to give people some glimmer of hope’ © Frederik van den Berg/FT

Bern, which imposed no second nationwide lockdown to control the second wave of coronavirus, has refused to enforce closures of ski resorts. As a result skiing has become an unlikely, but bitter, political faultline dividing European countries as they seek a response to the latest phase of the pandemic.

Other European leaders have been barely able to contain their contempt for Switzerland’s recalcitrance. Both the French and Italian prime ministers have directly called the president of Switzerland’s governing federal council to demand it fall into line, officials in Bern told the Financial Times.

Switzerland’s parliament this week responded with a motion condemning even the limited measures being rolled out to reduce capacity at ski resorts to 80 per cent as too much.

Foremost in EU politicians’ minds are the events of February and March, during the first wave of the pandemic, when Alpine resorts became superspreader clusters. That Switzerland, in keeping its resorts open, may become an economic beneficiary from others’ pain is particularly rankling.

The Chedi hotel: winter tourism is the single most important economic sector in the Alpine regions © Frederik van den Berg/FT

At Andermatt’s luxury Chedi hotel, the season is already under way, with guests enjoying a fireside drink in the lounge as porters scurry around with trolleys laden with skis, boots and expensive luggage. In the wine library, where rare vintages are stacked floor to ceiling, two businessmen had set up “home offices”.

“We haven’t needed to close anything, which is good news,” said Joachim Schweier, the hotel’s marketing manager. “Bookings are tending to be more last-minute, but we’ve received a lot of interest recently.” 

As questions hang over other European destinations, the Chedi is offering a private jet service to fly guests in from destinations including London, Munich and Rome — without the health risks that flying commercial during a pandemic may entail.

Skiing has a reputation for frivolity — not least because of the moneyed crowd it tends to attract — but it is big business. More than a third of Swiss regularly ski for recreation. 

Joachim Schweier, Chedi marketing manager: ‘We haven’t needed to close anything, which is good news’ © Frederik van den Berg/FT

“It’s our national sport, and especially at these times with lockdowns and so many people staying at home, its very important that you can go out into the mountains, into the fresh air, to meet other people and to be physically active,” said Mathias Imoberdorf, spokesperson for the ski facilities at the resort of Zermatt in south-west Switzerland. “We have trust in the federal government to take the right decision,” he added.

With the country still dealing with a high number of infections, however, not everyone in Switzerland is supportive of the government approach.

A parody video went viral in Switzerland this week that punned on the Austrian resort of Ischgl that became a coronavirus hotspot earlier this year. It invited tourists to fictional Ischgliich — Swiss dialect for “I don’t care” — and advised booking soon, with “intensive care beds already sold out.” On Friday, Zürich’s Tages-Anzeiger newspaper asked: “Is Switzerland a liberal freak show?”

Those working in the ski industry, though, draw a distinction between safe winter holidays and the kind of raucous après-ski partying that is one of Ischgl’s selling point.

A scenic train ride up to the resort of Andermatt. Carriages will have to run with restricted capacity © Frederik van den Berg/FT

In Andermatt, a range of soft measures are being used to “guide” rather than “restrict” guests, said Raphael Krucker, the resort’s chief executive. Restaurants have doubled their outdoor seating capacity, indoor tables are being limited to four people, and loud music is prohibited to curb any temptation to party. Bars shut at 11pm.

“The number one priority is to avoid another lockdown,” said Mr Krucker, pointing out that the ski lifts on the Gemstock mountain had been open for weeks without any coronavirus problem.

The federal government on Friday announced limited restrictions for the skiing industry. Enclosed cabins, gondolas and train compartments in resorts must restrict themselves to two-thirds of their capacity, but there will be no restrictions on numbers using ski slopes. From December 22, individual resorts will also require a licence to remain open which will be linked to hospital capacity. 

Mr Granvik, the hotelier, hoped the government would hold its nerve. “I understand shopping for food is a necessity and skiing is not. But at the same time, you cannot take everything away from people — you have to give people some glimmer of hope.”



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CDU leadership backs Armin Laschet’s bid to be German chancellor

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Armin Laschet won a key victory in his campaign to succeed Angela Merkel when the party he leads, the Christian Democratic Union, backed him as their candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election.

The CDU governing executive’s decision to back Laschet was a setback for Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria, who has also laid claim to the title.

The move was expected, but could prove controversial. Söder is by far the more popular politician, and many CDU MPs had argued in recent days that the party would have a much better chance of winning September’s election with Söder as their candidate.

After throwing his hat into the ring on Sunday, Söder said he would accept the CDU’s decision. However, it is still unclear whether his party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, will accept Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate. The CSU’s executive is meeting later on Monday.

Sunday’s events threw the process for finding a successor to Merkel, who will step down this year after 16 years as Germany’s leader, into confusion. The CDU and CSU traditionally field a joint candidate for chancellor: that person is usually the leader of the CDU, which is by far the larger party.

Volker Bouffier, governor of the western state of Hesse, said the CDU’s executive had unanimously backed Laschet at a meeting in Berlin on Monday morning. He added, however, that no formal decision had been made on the issue.

Bouffier said the executive had made clear “that we consider [Laschet] exceptionally well-suited and asked him to discuss together with Markus Söder how we proceed”. He added that “the current polls should not determine the decision over [who we choose as] candidate”.

Since Laschet was elected CDU leader in January, the party has suffered a precipitous slump in the polls and that created an opening for Söder. He has frequently argued that the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate should be the politician with the best chances of winning in September.

Voters have blamed the CDU for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations. Revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks also badly damaged the party’s image.

The malaise in the CDU was highlighted last month when it slumped to its worst ever election results in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls currently put support for the CDU/CSU at between 26 per cent and 28 per cent, way down on the 33 per cent it garnered in the last Bundestag election in 2017.

There was more bad news at the weekend for Laschet, who as well as being CDU leader is also prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A poll for broadcaster WDR in NRW found that only 26 per cent of voters in the state are satisfied with the work of the regional government Laschet leads and only 24 per cent of voters consider him a suitable candidate for chancellor.

The slide in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens. The party garnered 8.9 per cent of the vote in 2017 and is now polling at 23 per cent. It is seen as a racing certainty that it will be part of Germany’s next government.



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EU and UK edge towards accord on trade rules for Northern Ireland

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The UK and the EU are making progress in talks on how to apply post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, raising hopes of an agreement that could help reduce tensions that have spilled over into violence on the streets of Belfast.

Officials on both sides said that recent days of intensive contacts had given cause for optimism that the UK and EU can craft a “work plan” on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the post-Brexit terms for goods to flow between the region and Great Britain. EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost may meet to review progress this week. 

“They are advancing on a technical level and probably we will see a [Frost-Sefcovic] meeting rather sooner than later”, said one EU diplomat, while cautioning progress depended on firm commitments from the UK and its “unequivocal support” for the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Other EU diplomats and officials said strong UK engagement in the technical talks on implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol had raised hopes that an understanding could be reached. 

“The mood seems to have warmed up a bit — the tone of the discussions is quite good,” said one British official. 

The talks are a follow up to a draft plan about implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that was submitted by the UK to Brussels at the end of last month — a step the EU said was essential to rebuilding trust after Britain unilaterally extended waivers for traders from some aspects of the rules in March. This move prompted EU legal action.

The discussions between British and EU officials in recent days have taken place against the backdrop of violence in Northern Ireland, stoked in part by resentment within the unionist community at how the protocol treats their region differently to the rest of the UK.

From April 2 there were eight consecutive nights of unrest in Northern Ireland, involving both unionist and nationalist areas. The police responded by deploying water cannons for the first time in six years.

The Brexit deal placed a trade border down the Irish Sea in order to keep commerce seamless on the island of Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol requires customs and food safety checks for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Officials said the EU-UK talks now under way about implementation of the protocol cover a wide array of practical issues ranging from trade in steel and medicines to the policing of food safety standards, how to deal with residual soil on plant bulbs, and the construction of border inspection posts. 

“Technical talks are ongoing”, said an EU official. “Depending on the progress made at technical level, a political-level meeting may be held soon.”

But EU diplomats and officials also cautioned that more work remains to be done, especially on the thorny issue of applying food safety checks. Difficult talks also lie ahead on the timetable for putting particular measures in place.

Meanwhile Downing Street played down a report in The Observer that it was resisting proposals by Dublin for a special crisis summit to address the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland.

“We have not refused anything,” said a Number 10 official. “It’s something we will consider.”

However there are concerns on the British side about the wisdom of holding a summit in Northern Ireland with Irish government ministers at a time when pro-UK loyalist groups have been engaged in street violence.

Irish officials said taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson have spoken and would “maintain close contact over coming days”.



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France to offer mRNA jabs as second dose after AstraZeneca 

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France has become the second country after Germany to recommend that younger people who have had a first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine be given a different jab for their follow-up shot.

The mixed-dose approach has been recommended by health experts in both countries — despite there being little clinical trial data to support it — because of the slim risk that younger people can develop blood clots when given the AstraZeneca jab.

The World Health Organization reiterated its position on Friday that there was “no data on interchangeability of vaccine platforms”, noting further research was needed.

The move comes as the European Medicines Agency said it is also probing a possible link between the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and four serious cases of unusual blood clots in the US, where it is currently being rolled out. It is not yet being distributed in the EU or UK. The vaccine is based on an adenovirus vector, similar to the AstraZeneca shot.

The EMA said it was not yet clear whether there was a causal link. J&J said it is working with experts and regulators to assess the data. “Our close tracking of side effects has revealed a small number of very rare events following vaccination,” it said. “At present, no clear causal relationship has been established.” 

In France, the policy will affect roughly 530,000 people under age 55 who were given a first shot of AstraZeneca from early February to mid-March when they were eligible under its strategy of giving healthcare workers the vaccine, while reserving the mRNA vaccines for elderly people most at risk.

The Haute Autorité de Santé, a panel of medical experts which advises the government, has said they should be given booster shots from BioNTech/Pfizer or Moderna. France has changed course to use AstraZeneca only in people aged above 55 since the blood clot issue emerged.

France announced its decision on Friday after the HAS recommended the mixed-dose strategy. Germany took a similar stance in early April. 

Health minister Olivier Véran told RTL radio on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was “totally logical” given the analysis of European regulators and France’s desire to continue its vaccination campaign as the scientific evidence evolved.

European countries, whose vaccination campaigns have been slower than world leaders such as the US, Israel, and the UK, have been grappling with how to use AstraZeneca doses since the blood clot reports emerged, with some countries applying new age restrictions and others pausing its use entirely.

But with Covid-19 still spreading, officials are also seeking to reassure people that the AstraZeneca vaccine’s benefits still largely outweigh the risks. 

The European Medicines Agency recently established that there was a “possible link” between the AstraZeneca vaccine and unusual blood clots with low blood platelets that have mostly affected women under 60 years old, though regulators have said there is no specific risk factor by gender.

The EMA said it had examined at least 86 such reported cases and 16 deaths, and recommended updating the vaccine’s safety information to list the clots as a possible side effect.

Élisabeth Bouvet, a vaccine expert and member of the HAS, said on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was a practical solution intended to protect younger people, who are at lower risk of developing severe forms of Covid-19, from the risk of blood clotting side effects. “It is really a choice based on safety,” she said.

“Given that the protection of the Covid-19 vaccines begins to diminish after three months, these people need an additional dose,” she added. “The idea is to give mRNA vaccine as a second dose for this population in a ‘prime-boost’ strategy.”

Even in the absence of clinical data, Bouvet said that they believed the approach carried low risks of side effects and was likely to offer people additional protection given that the Covid-19 vaccines all aim at the same spike protein on the coronavirus.

“We think that this approach will work,” she said. “There is no reason to expect any particular side effects with mixed dosing but it would be good to study the immune response it creates.” 

Peter English, a retired Public Health England consultant in communicable disease control, said it was “reasonable” to use other vaccines, particularly in younger patients, until the risk of blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine has been clarified.

“If we are to achieve vaccine-induced herd immunity [not just through masks and social distancing] a high uptake of vaccination will be required in the groups most likely to spread the virus, not just in those most at risk if infected,” he said, noting vaccine mixing and matching has been done for other diseases. 

Trials studying a combination of vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s and Russia’s Sputnik V shots, are under way.



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