Only a dozen British tourists out of about 420 appear to be left in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier after an undisclosed number fled a mandatory quarantine, many under cover of darkness, risking a 10,000 Swiss franc fine (£8,300) and drawing widespread condemnation on social media.
Asked about the runaway tourists, the Swiss health minister, Alain Berset, said: “We are aware of that. It’s obviously a problem. There was an order to quarantine that has not been respected.”
He added: “One shouldn’t underestimate what an impossible situation it was. We had to decide within hours what to do … That things don’t work perfectly in such a situation, that problems surface is a reality we have to live with.”
While some Swiss officials were sympathetic to the British skiers who quietly escaped rather than comply with Switzerland’s new quarantine rules for citizens from the UK and South Africa, after the discovery of a new highly contagious variant of coronavirus, commentators on Twitter were less kind, focusing on the wealth and entitlement of the skiers.
It also appeared that some of the skiers may have ignored UK advice on not travelling abroad as part of the new restrictions announced before Christmas.
While Verbier, not far from the French border, has been the focus of most reporting, British skiers also fled other resorts – including former Leave.EU campaigner Andy Wigmore, who compared his own family to the Von Trapps from The Sound of Music as he escaped via Paris after tough new Swiss restrictions were introduced last week.
“So had the best time in wengen.swiss until the Swiss decided to lockdown the country and quarantine all those who didn’t escape for 14 days … well just like in the Sound of Music the Wiggy von Trapps decided to make a run for it from the slopes of Switzerland to the French border in less than 3 hours.” In the film, the Von Trapps are escaping the Nazis.
Wigmore was one of few British tourists in Switzerland willing to put his head above the parapet in the last week as many chose to leave their apartments and rooms, leaving meals uneaten and beds unslept in.
While Verbier was hosting about 420 British skiers, it is believed that about 3,500 flew into Switzerland for the Christmas break, with many traveling by car or train. Pre-pandemic British skiers made up 21% of all overnight stays in the Verbier resort.
Swiss resorts had appeared to be set to benefit from restrictions imposed in other parts of Europe but tough new restrictions by the Swiss government –introduced on 21 December and including a 10-day retroactive quarantine for those arrived from Britain since 14 December – caught out large numbers.
The restriction were amended on Christmas Eve to allow Britons to return home, including those in quarantine, if they abided by “special measures” including informing local authorities of their mode of transport.
It is unclear how many simply fled and how many left under the amended rule.
“Many of them stayed in quarantine for a day before they set off unnoticed under the cover of darkness,” Jean-Marc Sandoz, spokesman for the wider Bagnes municipality said, calling the situation “the worst week our community has ever experienced”.
Reports in the Swiss media as the ban was announced last week suggested that some hotels had been explicit about the new quarantine rules for British guests, suggesting that those who fled were aware they were breaking the law.
The Neue Zürcher Zeitung quoted Anne Georges of Verbier’s Hotel Phenix before Christmas as advising three groups of British guests to stay in their rooms. “It’s uncomfortable, but what else do I want to do?”
Commentary on social media focused on the wealth and entitlement of the skiers.
Other posted mockups of the poster for the film The Great Escape or called for those who fled to be arrested.
Simon Wiget, the director of Verbier tourist office, told the Sonntag Zeitung that the rules were confusing.
“We called all the hotels and tour operators and said that people who had travelled from the UK had to announce themselves to the Swiss authorities.
“We identified about 350 people but maybe there were 500 people if all the second homeowners and private chalet guests were included, it was impossible to be sure.”