March 20, 2020 / 2:50 PM / 11 days ago

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

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland announced a new 32 billion Swiss franc ($32.56 billion) aid package to support companies and workers hit by the widening coronavirus outbreak which has pushed the country into “drastic measures”.

FILE PHOTO: A pedestrian wearing a mask walks through the Swiss-Italian border during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Chiasso, Switzerland, March 9, 2020./File Photo

The government also banned gatherings of more than five people as it ramped up its response to the epidemic which has claimed 43 lives and forced businesses across the country to shut down.

The steps fall short of the complete lockdown 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 news conference in Bern.

“We have our back to the wall now and we have to show that we’re up to the challenge.”

Until now many people had not taken the situation seriously enough and continued to gather in large groups, he said.

“To be concrete, from midnight tonight, any group of young people gathering at the rail station in Bern, Geneva or Lausanne can be fined 100 francs each,” Berset said.

The package followed one worth 10 billion francs announced last week to cushion the expected downturn caused by the virus.

The measures aim to maintain employment, protect wages and help self-employed workers, the government said. The bulk of the cash — 20 billion francs — will go into guarantees for bank loans to companies at what Finance Minister Ueli Maurer called “very modest” interest rates.

Firms 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.

The government’s short-time working scheme - which compensates the lost wages - would also be extended to fixed-term, temporary workers and trainees, it said.

Credit Suisse (CSGN.S) welcomed the loan guarantee scheme.

“We will work with our customers to ensure that the guarantee scheme is implemented as quickly and as unbureaucratically as possible,” said Andre Helfenstein, the head of its Swiss business.

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 drugs to prevent panic buying and mobilized up to 8,000 members of its military.

The number of coronavirus cases in Switzerland and Liechtenstein rose by 952 within a day to 4,840 people, Swiss health authorities said, with 43 people dead.

Maurer said it was crucial for money to be available quickly and in a non-complicated way, but helicopter money - direct payments to households to stimulate the economy - was not needed.

“We are supporting the economy. If it needs more resources, we will provide them,” he said.

Reporting by John Revill, Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay, Silke Koltrowitz, editing by Ed Osmond

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