By Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi
ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland is preparing more help for businesses flattened by the coronovirus epidemic, the government said on Wednesday, topping up the biggest economic aid package in Swiss history as the human toll mounted.
Deaths from the coronavirus rose by five to 378, while the number of people with positive tests in Switzerland surpassed 17,000, the federal health agency said.
The government instructed the finance ministry to come up with a proposal by Friday for expanding an emergency liquidity programme for coronavirus-hit businesses.
Banks within days have lent out more than half of the 20 billion Swiss francs ($20.69 billion) set aside for state-backed loans at no or low interest under a programme set up last week.
The government has so far set aside 42 billion francs to help the export-driven economy through the crisis. It is now looking to do even more.
That could include helping protect start-ups from bankruptcy and expanding financial support to cover more self-employed individuals who have suffered massive losses.
Further measures are under consideration to cover travel agencies, culture and sports, the government said, while cautioning it would be unable to cover all claims for lost income.
From expensive watches to chocolates and cement, Swiss industry is being battered by the pandemic. The purchasing managers’ index for manufacturing sank to its lowest in more than a decade in March, while the services sector hit a record low.
Government ministers urged people to stay home and work from there if possible as a way to curb the spread of the highly infectious respiratory illness that has hit neighbours Italy and France hard, with almost 16,000 deaths between them.
“We are engaged in a long battle, the population must know that we cannot let our guard down now,” Economy Minister Guy Parmelin told a news conference in Bern, distancing himself from calls from his right-wing People’s Party and some businesspeople to draw up an exit plan from tough restrictions on public life.
These include a ban on gatherings of more than five people and closure of schools, restaurants and bars.
(Reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi, Michael Shields, John Miller, Silke Koltrowitz and John Revill; Editing by Mark Heinrich)