Swiss keep calm and rest on their months of stockpiles

Over the past week, customers across Europe have cleaned supermarket shelves with pasta, canned food and toilet rolls as the coronavirus pandemic plunged countries into lockdown, seized chains and triggered panic buying crises.

But in the Swiss city of Zurich, the only shortages in supermarkets are for customers.

Switzerland had Thursday evening 10,714 confirmed cases coronavirus and 161 deaths. Per capita, it is the most affected state in Europe, which reflects its proximity to Lombardy, northern Italy, the source of the European epidemic.

But even in the face of a Swiss government foreclosure, disruption of the supply chain has been minimal.

With between three and six months of food and essential goods stored within the country’s borders, Switzerland has one of the largest strategic stocks in the world.

Last year, Switzerland, which has 8.5 million inhabitants, kept 63,000 tonnes of sugar, 160,000 tonnes of white flour for bread, 33,700 tonnes of cooking oil (a fifth of which for dressing and mayonnaise) and just under 400,000 tonnes of specialized food for its dairy industry in reserve. The Swiss authorities have already plunged into medical supplies.

“There have been some challenges in logistics due to the extraordinarily high demand,” said Werner Meier, the head of the National Economic Supply Office (BWL), the organization that coordinates the country’s stocks with the private sector. “But Switzerland is currently sufficiently supplied with food and medicines.”

The history and geography of Switzerland have anchored strategic thinking on the country’s supply chains over the decades, said Meier.

“Switzerland is highly dependent on imports, for example between 40 and 50 percent of food is imported – so maintaining the reserves of certain products is a very important precautionary measure.” The system was designed, he added, to avoid market failures in the event of unforeseen crises – such as the current pandemic.

It is not only the essentials that are safeguarded.

In November, huge public outcry end plans to end coffee storage. Government technocrats believed that its zero calorific value made it “non-essential”. Their defeat means that the Swiss currently have 15,000 tonnes of coffee beans in stock to watch them get through the coronavirus pandemic, if imports into the country dry up and existing commercial stocks disappear.

Adequate supply is only half the picture. The government has regularly run public information campaigns for decades to advise citizens on how to supply their households.

Public confidence in the jurisdiction of governments is high and few people feel the need to panic to buy goods. The last widely distributed leaflet on the maintenance of household pantries was released just a few weeks ago: the last in a series called Kluger Rat – Notvorrat – “wise advice – emergency stores” – which have existed for 50 years. The Swiss are advised to have nine liters of bottled water per person, enough food to feed someone for a week, a gas stove, candles and money.

Posters from the Swiss government encouraging national storage date back to 1968. © Federal Office of Civil Protection

An unusually dry summer in 2018 underscored the need for such caution. The container port of Basel, through which around 10% of Swiss imports pass, was forced to suspend its activities because the upper part of the river was is no longer navigable.

The Swiss legislator had already updated its emergency plans and its storage strategy in 2016, while Bern was increasingly concerned about the fragility of modern supply chains. Officials were alarmed by a stormy season in the United States in 2015, which saw food and other supplies run out quickly.

A striking feature of the Swiss system is the participation of the private sector. “Ensuring security of supply of essential goods and services is primarily the responsibility of the private sector,” said Andrin Hauri, senior risk and resilience researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich.

There is no central stock: instead, the goods are kept in reserve in the warehouses of companies spread across the country. More than 250 senior executives from Swiss companies are seconded to the BWL to report on their activities and coordinate the strengthening of supply chains.

Close integration with the private sector has enormous benefits for government. Reserves can be released into the supply chain almost instantly and costs are kept low. According to the latest government figures, the reserve system costs around 12 Swiss francs per capita to maintain.

However, no system is perfect. “Compulsory stocks are only useful if the right products in sufficient quantities are placed under the obligation,” said Mr. Hauri. “It requires careful and regular analysis.”

In some key areas, Switzerland, like its neighbors, has failed. BWL has already released its entire stock – 168,000 – of respiratory masks. Even before the coronavirus epidemic, officials knew there weren’t enough stocks: the country needs more than four times as much to see it in the next three months.

Leave a Comment