How I fared on a mini-break to Switzerland, where the AZ vaccine isn’t recognised

·5-min read
aerial view of Geneva - Alberto Mazza /Moment RF
aerial view of Geneva - Alberto Mazza /Moment RF

“What type of Covid vaccine did you get? Please not AZ,” reads a message from a friend, the week before my trip to Geneva to see her for the first time since February 2020.

Her next message flashed up: “Switzerland doesn’t recognise the AstraZeneca vaccine (unless administered in the EU) and there’s new rules being enforced from Sept 13 to go to any indoor places.”

I was arriving on 16 September and yes, predictably, of course I’d had the AstraZeneca vaccine. (I’d even given the AstraZeneca vaccine, hundreds of them, via my volunteer role with St John’s Ambulance.)

The saving grace was the Swiss would still let me in the country, assuming I filled in the right forms and could prove I’d been double vaccinated, even if it was in Brexit Britain with AstraZeneca.

The airport duly accomplished, I embarked on finding the right city bus I could take – for free – to my friend’s address in Conches, on Geneva’s south-eastern fringes. All I had to do was keep wearing my mask – face coverings being obligatory on Swiss public transport and inside all buildings, including schools, even for PE lessons – as anyone is free to board a bus, tram or train, vaccinated or not.

The trouble started later that day when, after a swim in the new-to-me Plage des Eaux-Vives, a public bathing spot that opened in 2020 just along from Geneva’s Jet d’Eau, we fancied popping to the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire. We thought we’d take advantage of Thursday’s late night opening and see how Ferdinand Hodler, one of Switzerland’s most famous artists and one of my friend’s favourite painters, had captured Lake Geneva on canvas, but the new Swiss rules thought otherwise.

“CERTIFICAT COVID OBLIGATOIRE,” warned a poster of a stern-looking Photoshopped dame, holding a Swiss Covid pass. As I had neither the right pass nor the equally obligatory ID card on me, I wasn’t hopeful of getting past the museum guard, who couldn’t have been more helpful. He tried, in order of decreasing optimism: the NHS barcode that proved I’d had two doses of AstraZeneca; the Swiss certificate I’d downloaded even though the “signature” was “invalid” due to my vaccine, which hasn’t been authorised for use here; and the French #TousAntiCovid app, which he’d figured was worth a try. Nothing worked.

He logged into the Geneva canton website to see if there was a way round the situation while the Swiss authorities decided if and how to accept the British-administered AZ vaccine. Upshot: I could write to someone or other but it would take them “10 to 15 days” to reply. We left, making do instead with the Henry Moore sculpture reclining on the grass opposite the museum.

people swimming in lake geneva, floating pontoon - iStock Unreleased /Alphotographic
people swimming in lake geneva, floating pontoon - iStock Unreleased /Alphotographic

Shopping, on Friday, for some hiking poles for a planned walk near Villars, in the Vaud Alps, was no problem: unlike bars and restaurants, being inside a shop doesn’t require a Covid certificate. Peckish, we counted on grabbing a snack from the Street Food festival in the Jardin Anglais. Considering even bars and restaurants will serve food to the unvaccinated providing they eat outside, we figured getting something from an open-air stall would be fine. But this English visitor wasn’t allowed in: official events requiring, yep, anything other than the AZ vaccine to gain entry.

I tried asking at the tourist information booth. But the man there knew nothing about my woes, blithely assuring me my NHS certificate would work. I explained otherwise. “Ah, I’m sorry. Everything in Switzerland happens so slowly,” he said by way of justifying the issue with AstraZeneca. “Ce n’est pas grave,” I lied, grateful we’d shoved in some emergency chocolate.

By now, there were rumours the government was poised to U-turn and grant Covid certificates to anyone vaccinated with vaccines recognised by the European Medicines Agency, including AZ, regardless of where it was given. But we were headed to stay at a hotel in Villars on Sunday before the new regime would take effect, and if I wanted to eat my dinner inside, I’d need some sort of temporary solution. Despite already paying for two Covid tests to get back into the UK, I tried booking another one at a nearby testing centre “the size of an airport hangar”, according to my friend. But there were no slots until Monday, 48 hours too late for my purposes, so I gave up, resolving instead to pack a jumper for supper al fresco.

On Saturday, we headed for Bains de Paquis, another swimming spot, this time dating from 1872. It’s 2 CHF (£1.50) for entry, and I didn’t need a Covid certificate. Result! There was another festival going on, again restricted to those with the right jabs, but it didn’t bother us as we could park our towels on the decking next to the bar, which was happy to serve me because it was outside. A carafe of rosé, a dip in the lake, and a view of the Jet d’Eau: merci à Dieu.

Up in Villars-sur-Ollon, a two-hour journey by train and bus from Geneva, winter felt underway. Dining outside in thick fog and light drizzle did not appeal. Thank heavens we stumbled upon a cheesy speakeasy, where the waiter scanned in my friend and, glancing at my British documents, told me to keep them to one side “in case the inspectors arrive”, while serving us fondue and cornichons.

Although the rules will have changed yet again by the time I finish writing this, I guess the confusion serves as a useful reminder that travel will remain, well, confusing, for a good while yet. And if you find yourself in Geneva with the wrong Covid documentation in need of a hot drink inside a bar, I know a cafe in Eaux-Vives that will serve you, where the barista shrugged at my non-functioning certificate. “Elsewhere it’s a problem, but here, don’t worry!”

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