Drivers to Switzerland's scenic south stopped by police in virus crackdown

GOESCHENEN, Switzerland (Reuters) - A road under the Alps to the sunny south of Switzerland normally jammed with holiday-makers was deserted on Friday as police warned drivers against travelling to the region worst hit by the new coronavirus pandemic.

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Officers stopped all vehicles heading towards the Gotthard Tunnel after the government appealed for people not to travel over the Easter weekend to stem transmissions of COVID-19, the highly contagious lung disease caused by the virus.

Ticino, bordering Italy, is beloved by the Swiss for its lakes and Mediterranean climate, with many having second homes in the southern canton. But Ticino has been hard hit by the outbreak, suffering 18% of the country’s COVID-19 deaths, and its businesses, restaurants, bars and hotels have closed.

Although the Gotthard tunnel has not been closed and driving to Ticino is not illegal, every car heading there has been stopped, with officers from the cantons of Uri and Ticino speaking to the occupants.

All have been handed notices saying: “It is not the right time to visit Ticino,” and “You are a burden for the infrastructure and are endangering yourself and others including health workers.”

Normally 18,000 cars per day travel south on the motorway, causing tailbacks of up to 15 kilometres. This has been reduced to a trickle, police said, with the number of drivers down by 90%.

“We are very pleased with the operation so far,” said Reto Pfister, commander of Uri Police, told Reuters. “The main success has been people not deciding to travel at all.

“Around 98% of the people travelling south have a good reason to go to Ticino - because they live there or have family there or very important business. Only a very few people are traveling south for holidays in Ticino or to have fun.”

Around 300 cars were stopped on Friday, with police telling the occupants about the dangers of going to Ticino and how going there made it harder to contain the virus, Pfister said.

“Everyone understands why we are stopping them,” said Pfister. “One car even decided to turn around and go back after we spoke to them today so the message is getting through.”

Police will publish details on Monday on how many cars they stopped during the operation.

Reporting by John Revill and Arnd Wiegmann; Editing by Steve Orlofsky