Even in the face of a government lockdown, supply chain disruption has been at a minimum © Fabrice Coffrini/AFP 

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Over the past week, customers across Europe have cleared supermarket shelves of pasta, tinned foods and toilet rolls as the coronavirus pandemic has plunged countries into lockdown, seized up supply chains and triggered bouts of panic buying.

But in the Swiss city of Zurich, the only shortages in supermarkets have been of customers.

As of Thursday evening, Switzerland had 10,714 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 161 deaths. On a per capita basis, it is the worst-hit state in Europe, reflecting its proximity to Lombardy, northern Italy, the source of the European outbreak.

But even in the face of a Swiss government lockdown, supply chain disruption has been at a minimum.

With between three and six months’ worth of essential foodstuffs and goods kept in storage within the country’s borders, Switzerland maintains one of the largest strategic stockpiles in the world. 

As of last year, Switzerland, which has a population of 8.5m, kept 63,000 tonnes of sugar, 160,000 tonnes of white flour for bread, 33,700 tonnes of cooking oil (a fifth of which is for salad dressing and mayonnaise), and just under 400,000 tonnes of specialist feed for its dairy industry in reserve. Already, Swiss authorities have dipped into some medical supplies. 

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

Switzerland’s history and geography had ingrained strategic thinking about the country’s supply chains over decades, Mr Meier said. 

“Switzerland is heavily dependent on imports for example between 40 and 50 per cent of food is imported — therefore maintaining reserves of certain goods is a very important precautionary measure.” The system had been designed, he added, to avert market failure in the event of unforeseen crises — such as the current pandemic. 

It is not just the essentials that are safeguarded.

In November, a huge public outcry put a stop to plans to end the stockpiling of coffee. Government technocrats reasoned that its zero calorific value made it “unessential”. Their defeat means the Swiss currently have 15,000 tonnes of coffee beans in storage to see them through the coronavirus pandemic, if imports into the country dried up and existing commercial stocks vanished. 

Adequate supply is only one half of the picture. The government has run regular public information campaigns for decades advising citizens on how to supply their households.

Public confidence in the governments’ competence is high, and few people feel the need to panic buy goods. The latest widely-distributed leaflet advising on domestic larder maintenance came out only a few weeks ago: the latest in a series titled Kluger Rat — Notvorrat — “smart advice — emergency stores” — that has been going for 50 years. The Swiss are advised to have nine litres of bottled water per person, enough food to feed someone for a week, a gas stove, candles and cash. 

Swiss government posters encouraging domestic stockpiling date back to 1968. © Swiss Federal Office for Civil Protection

An unusually dry summer in 2018 underscored the need for such caution. The container port at Basel, through which about 10 per cent of Swiss imports pass, was forced to suspend its operations as the upper reach of the river was no longer navigable. 

Swiss lawmakers had already updated their contingency plans and stockpiling strategy in 2016, as Bern grew increasingly concerned about the fragility of modern supply chains. Officials had been alarmed by a 2015 US storm season that saw food and other goods run out quickly. 

One striking feature of the Swiss system is the involvement of the private sector. “In Switzerland, ensuring the security of supply of essential goods and services is first and foremost the responsibility of the private sector,” said Andrin Hauri, a senior researcher in risk and resilience at the Centre for Security Studies of ETH Zurich. 

There is no central stockpile: instead, goods are kept in reserve in the warehouses of businesses distributed across the country. More than 250 senior managers at Swiss companies are seconded to the BWL to report on their industries and to co-ordinate on strengthening supply chains. 

The close integration with the private sector has huge advantages for the 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 about SFr12 per capita annually to maintain. 

No system, however, is perfect. “Compulsory stocks are only useful if the right goods in sufficient quantities are placed under the obligation,” said Mr Hauri. “That requires thorough and regular analysis.”

In some key areas Switzerland has, in common with its neighbours, fallen short. BWL has already released its entire stock — 168,000 — of respiratory masks. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, officials knew the stocks would not be enough: the country needs more than four times as many to see it through the next three months. 

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