Swiss announce $32.6 billion aid deal as virus puts nation’s ‘back against wall’

By John Revill

ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland has announced a new 32 billion Swiss franc ($32.56 billion) aid package to support companies and workers hit by the coronavirus outbreak, it said on Friday.

The government also banned gatherings of more than five people, threatening them with fines, as it ramped up its response to the epidemic which has so far claimed 43 lives and forced a shutdown of businesses across the country.

The steps fall short of the complete lockdown which has been introduced to prevent the spread of the virus in neighboring Italy, which has borne the brunt of the pandemic in Europe.

“We’re not at a lock-down yet, but we’re close,” Swiss health minister Alain Berset told a press conference in Bern.

“Whoever does not obey the rule of limiting five people can count on getting a fine. We have our back to the wall now and we have to show that we’re up to the challenge.”

The Swiss package follows the 10 billion franc package announced by the government last week to cushion the expected downturn caused by the virus.

Switzerland’s government repeated its appeal to people to stay at home, particularly the over-65s and those who are already ill.

The aim of the measures is to maintain employment, protect wages and help self-employed workers, the government said.

Businesses seeing the virus hitting their operations will be able to get loans worth up to 10% of their revenue, to a maximum of 20 million francs. Amounts of 500,000 francs will be paid out immediately and guaranteed by the government. It expects the loans of up 500,000 francs to cover more than 90% of the companies.

RECESSION FEARS

The aid package comes after government economists warned on Thursday that Switzerland would be dragged into a recession this year, while the country has also started rationing some drugs to prevent panic buying and mobilized up to 8,000 members of its military.

The number of coronavirus cases in Switzerland and Liechtenstein has risen by 952 within a day to 4,840 people, Swiss health authorities said, with 43 people reported to have died.

The Swiss National Bank on Thursday stressed that monetary policy alone cannot fight the economic downturn caused by the outbreak.

The southern Swiss canton of Ticino on the border with Italy is being swamped with coronavirus patients and authorities are battling to find enough intensive care beds, a top public health official said on Thursday.

($1 = 0.9829 Swiss francs)

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