March 13, 2020 / 4:26 PM / 25 days ago

Swiss ramp up coronavirus response with $10.5 billion aid package, close schools

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland will make 10 billion Swiss francs available in immediate assistance to support businesses hit by the coronavirus, the government said on Friday as it ramped up its response to the widening pandemic.

Swiss Interior Minister Alain Berset, Swiss Economic Minister Guy Parmelin, President of the Swiss Confederation Simonetta Sommaruga and Swiss Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter arrive to a news conference after a Federal council meeting on the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Bern, Switzerland, March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

It will also impose checks on all borders and close schools until at least April 4, it said, as the number of confirmed cases of the virus in Switzerland and Liechtenstein surpassed 1,000. The government also banned events with more than 100 people, tightening existing curbs.

Entry from neighbouring Italy, which has borne the brunt of the outbreak in Europe, has been limited, while the government advised people to keep their distance from each other to slow the spread of the virus.

National train operator SBB said it would cancel tourist trains and group tours, after taking advice from the public health ministry.

President Simonetta Sommaruga described the situation as difficult and said it required drastic measures to be rolled out immediately.

The government aimed to protect the health of citizens and support businesses, she told a news conference in Bern.

“We have the means and capability to deal with this situation medically and financially,” Sommaruga said.

“These measures only make sense if we all keep to them, that will slow the spread of the disease,” she added.

The measures announced on Friday are effective immediately and most will run until at least April 30, the government said. It said it aims to protect the elderly and people with health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to the illness.

As part of the measures, bars, restaurants and nightclubs will not be allowed more than 50 guests at once.

But Sommaruga said there was no need for people to stock up on food at their supermarkets and panic buy.

The government has allocated 10 billion francs in emergency aid, with most of it earmarked to support companies hit by slumping demand.

Most of the money will be made available for companies forced to go to short-time working, while the waiting time before firms can apply for financial assistance has been shortened.

The government said it would examine if the compensation could be applied to pay the wages of contract workers and temporary staff.

For companies that are particularly badly hit, the government said it has allocated 1 billion francs for direct financial assistance or bridging finance. Small and medium-sized business with financial bottlenecks can access up to 580 million francs in guaranteed bank loans.

“The government wants to support our economy quickly and unbureaucratically” said Economic Affairs Minister Guy Parmelin.

Reporting by Michael Shields and John Revill; Editing by John Miller, Alex Richardson and Frances Kerry

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