Swiss crack down on travel, crank up money press in virus response

·2-min read
Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Geneva

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland will require negative coronavirus tests from people entering the country from high-risk areas as of Feb. 8, the government said on Wednesday, while cranking up spending to help cushion the pandemic's economic blow.

It proposed doubling to 5 billion Swiss francs ($5.63 billion) the fund financed by the federal and cantonal governments to support businesses laid low by restrictions to curb the virus's spread.

It extended unemployment benefits by three months and said the federal government would finance around 6 billion francs in extra spending to compensate workers on shortened working hours.

"In 2020, we will have spent a good 15 billion (francs) on COVID cases and in 2021, with today's decisions, it will already be around 15 billion," Finance Minister Ueli Maurer, a tight-fisted conservative, told a news conference in Bern.

From the time the government ordered a light lockdown in mid-December, it had generated around 150 million francs a day in fresh debt, he said.

"That means the federal debt mountain is growing by around 6 million an hour, or around 100,000 by the minute," he said, declining to rule out having to splash out even more.

Bern was ready to reactivate a scheme providing state guarantees for bank loans to companies should the credit market deteriorate, he said, but the crying need at the moment was for grants for those unable to make ends meet.

Switzerland this month tightened measures to tackle new variants of the COVID-19 virus spreading across the country while stopping short of the full lockdown neighbouring countries have adopted.

Health authorities have reported https://www.covid19.admin.ch/en/overview?ovTime=total nearly 518,000 cases and 8,545 deaths in Switzerland and neighbouring Liechtenstein since the pandemic broke out in February 2020.

New cases remain high but are falling, allowing for cautious optimism, Health Minister Alain Berset said, announcing the government would assume costs of testing people without symptoms as a way to encourage more screening in virus hot spots.

($1 = 0.8887 Swiss francs)

(Reporting by Michael Shields, Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi and John Miller, Editing by William Maclean)