Police presence reinforced in laissez-faire Switzerland
Swiss police plan to step up their presence significantly in the coming days to enforce social restrictions put in place to curb the coronavirus. With the Easter holidays approaching and warmer weather in the forecast, Stefan Blättler, head of the Conference of Cantonal Police Commanders, urged people to avoid unnecessary travel. Police are especially worried about people heading south to the hard-hit canton of Ticino, which borders Italy and attracts many visitors this time of year. Traffic jams are a common sight along the main route, particularly outside the Gotthard Tunnel. COVID-19 cases in Switzerland continue to rise by more than 1,000 a day. While that’s less steep than before, it is not clear yet that the rate has reached a peak, said Daniel Koch, head of communicable diseases at the Federal Office of Public Health. It’s still too early to make a reliable prognosis for the coming weeks and “certainly too early to relax the restrictions at this time,” he said. He declined to rule out further limits on public life, saying officials will wait until after the weekend to address that question. At present, gatherings of more than five people are banned, and shops, restaurants, and cultural spaces are closed. Koch urged people to stay home except for brief walks. Globally COVID-19 infections are nearing the 1 million mark after cases more than doubled in the past week. In Switzerland, the number rose to 18,267 on Thursday, with 432 deaths. Mask debate The World Health Organization is revisiting its guidance on whether people should wear face masks in public amid growing evidence that those with no symptoms of the virus can spread the disease more widely than thought. “We’re continuing to study the evidence about the use of masks,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference Wednesday. The Geneva-based UN agency has discouraged healthy people other than those caring for the infected from wearing masks. European countries have largely followed the WHO, but a shift appears to be under way. On Monday, Austria ordered its citizens to wear masks when outside the home, after the Czech, Slovak, and Bosnian governments issued similar orders. Switzerland has not mandated masks so far. The Federal Office of Public Health recommends their use only for health workers caring for coronavirus patients, people suspected of having the infection, or those who are at risk.
Sweden’s maverick approach to COVID-19
In Sweden, shops are open, kids are still going to school, and lots of people are still traveling to work—even though the country has a higher coronavirus death rate than locked-down Switzerland. Hannah Wise sits down with a television journalist from Stockholm to discuss why these two nations—sometimes confused with each other—couldn’t be more different in their approach to dealing with coronavirus.
Help for the local mom-and-pop
The storefronts may be closed but many neighborhood shops are still open for online business. And to help them get that message out, a group of social entrepreneurs has set up a website—BeLocalHero.com—to showcase their wares and help small retail businesses like florists and bookstores survive the loss of foot traffic during the coronavirus crisis.
Swiss government readies bigger coronavirus aid package
The Swiss government on Wednesday pledged to expand its coronavirus aid package while warning that there is a limit to how much it can help struggling businesses without damaging its own finances. The Federal Council plans to top up the CHF 42 billion package in the coming days with more liquidity for cash-strapped companies. It is also preparing support for those not included in the current plan, such as start-ups and the self-employed. Vice President Guy Parmelin, who is also the economics minister, cautioned that the government can’t cover all claims for lost income, saying that would endanger its financial stability and the country’s economic appeal. Switzerland is already looking to double its holdings of short-term debt and step up bond sales to cushion the economic consequences of the pandemic. Exit scenarios The council is also working on a strategy to reboot the economy after restrictions on social contact are eased. No time frame was given, although Parmelin said “small, strictly controlled relaxations” may be allowed for certain sectors. In one indication of how slow that process may be, the government said it will take two to three weeks just for trains to get back on schedule. “It would be counterproductive if we let our guard down and then have to take harder measures later,” Parmelin said. “Everyone would regret it.” Switzerland’s COVID-19 support package consists mainly of wage subsidies for furloughed workers and CHF 20 billion in guarantees for emergency loans. Banks have already handed out more than half of that to roughly 54,000 companies. Demand for help to cover salaries has also been overwhelming, with about 86,000 companies seeking benefits for more than 1 million employees, or about 20 percent of the workforce. Credit Suisse estimates the cost so far of federal measures to safeguard earnings at around CHF 4.6 billion for every month the crisis drags on. However, the government probably won’t have to breach its debt brake thanks in part to its budget surpluses in recent years, the bank said. The Swiss constitution requires a balance between revenue and expenses over the economic cycle, though the government may run annual deficits. The coronavirus lockdown is taking a heavy toll on Swiss industry, data showed on Wednesday. The Swiss Purchasing Managers’ Index for March fell to 43.7 points, its lowest since July 2009. The index is compiled by Credit Suisse and the procure.ch association. A measure below 50 points indicates a contraction in manufacturing, which accounts for about a fifth of Swiss output. The reading for the services sector plunged to 28.1 points, reflecting that most shops and restaurants are closed to help stop the virus. Switzerland has reported 17,139 cases of COVID-19, with 378 deaths as of Wednesday.
Swissport plans to reduce 60 percent of workforce
Airport ground services company Swissport has lost 70-80 percent of its global revenue as coronavirus brings the travel industry to a halt. “It is almost impossible for us to reduce costs fast enough in order to make sure the cash burn is somehow sustainable,” said CEO Eric Born. Grounded fleets and travel restrictions have made services such as airline check-ins and baggage handling redundant in airports. Swissport plans to furlough about 60 percent of its workforce by the end of April.
Switzerland closed more businesses on Monday to slow the spread of the coronavirus but stopped short of ordering the country’s 8.6 million citizens to stay home. Under the new rules, restaurants, museums, cinemas, hair salons, and all nonessential commerce must shut down at midnight until at least April 19.
Coding against COVID-19: Versus Virus Hackathon
More than 1,000 people have signed up to take part in the Versus Virus online hackathon, an initiative supported by the Swiss government to find digital solutions to the myriad problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Co-organizer Nikki Böhler discusses the goals of this week’s event with CNNMoney’s Tanya König.
ESA: Coronavirus-led drop in air pollution is but a “short blip”
New satellite imagery from the European Space Agency shows how the decline in traffic, air travel, and production activity has led to a sharp drop in air pollution levels since lockdown measures were put in place in China and in Europe. But Joseph Aschbacher, director of the ESA’s Observation Programmes, says the effects are but a “short blip” in the history of pollution.
Switzerland to tap markets for CHF 12 billion after virus dents finances
Switzerland will raise funds from financial markets more frequently this year to blunt the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. “The Federal Council’s measures to cushion the economic consequences of the spread of the coronavirus increase the federal government’s short-term financing needs,” the Federal Finance Administration said in a statement Tuesday. It plans to double its holdings of short-term instruments from around CHF 6 billion to CHF 12 billion francs. It also said it will step up sales of bonds. The government has put together an economic aid package worth about CHF 42 billion, including CHF 20 billion in guarantees for bank loans to small businesses. The finance department is considering topping up the program after companies borrowed CHF 6.6 billion in the first few days. Demand for wage subsidies has also been overwhelming. Businesses idled by coronavirus containment efforts have applied in record numbers for aid to keep workers on the payroll. Switzerland has reported 16,176 cases of COVID-19, with 373 deaths. Also Tuesday, the government said it has set up a scientific task force to advise officials and coordinate research on coronavirus. The aim is to identify research topics and products or services where Swiss science can quickly make a significant contribution to combating COVID-19, the interior ministry said. A global race is underway to find better ways of preventing, diagnosing, treating, and coping with the virus. In many countries, new government funds await scientists whose work shows promise. Matthias Egger, president of the National Research Council of the Swiss National Science Foundation, will head the task force. Last month, the foundation put out an urgent appeal for proposals on research into coronaviruses, earmarking CHF 5 million for projects. The call received more than 270 applications, Swiss radio RTS reported.
Luxury hotel offers retreat from pandemic for a privileged few
Social distancing is nothing new at Zurich’s Le Bijou Luxury Apart-Hotel. Now, for those seeking greater seclusion, the self-contained, fully automated units come with in-room doctor’s visits, coronavirus testing, and round-the-clock nurses’ care. Thanks in part to the special packages, occupancy rates are running around 50-60 percent despite the pandemic, says CEO and co-founder Alexander Hübner. He rejects criticism that he’s exploiting the health crisis for personal gain, saying he’s responding to the needs of his guests.