World News

Swiss scrap referendums for first time in decades to stem coronavirus spread

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland extended its self-isolation on Wednesday to curb the widening spread of the coronavirus pandemic as the country’s tradition of direct democracy fell victim to the outbreak.

A guard stands next to a medical screening tent for coronavirus testing outside the University Hospital of Geneva (HUG), in Geneva, Switzerland March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

The government cancelled a May 17 vote on Switzerland’s relationship with the European Union and suspended campaigns for other referendums.

The virus’s spread made it impossible to hold public events to discuss the issues, the government said as it urged the population to respect emergency health measures in radio and television announcements.

“Stay at home, particularly if you are old or sick,” ran a message at the bottom of the screen on public broadcaster SRF, before listing a few exceptions, for example to buy food.

“The government and Switzerland are counting on you.”

It was the first time in nearly 70 years that the government cancelled a raft of referendums. Votes in 1951 were abandoned due to the spread of foot and mouth disease.

The government had urged voters last month to reject the proposal by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party to end the free movement accord with the EU in a binding vote.

The issue had been called Switzerland’s “Brexit moment” because if approved, the country could lose its access to the EU single market -- by far the largest for Switzerland’s export-orientated economy.

The direct democracy shutdown came as the number of infections and deaths from the virus outbreak jumped.

The number of people tested positive for the new coronavirus in Switzerland and Liechtenstein has risen to 3,028, health authorities said, from 2,650 a day earlier.

The number of deaths rose to 21 from 19 from the disease which the authorities have warned could swamp the country’s health care system.

To stem the disease, Switzerland extended its entry ban to people coming from Spain in addition to existing restrictions on people from Italy, France, Germany and Austria.

It extended border controls to air traffic from Italy, France, Germany and Austria.

Entries from outside the Schengen free-travel area will be prohibited, except in exceptional circumstances, it said, joining similar measures that EU leaders agreed on Tuesday.

Reporting by John Revill