Switzerland’s government accelerated its lockdown exit on Wednesday, saying its coronavirus containment measures have succeeded in curbing the infection faster than initially hoped.
Starting May 11, restaurants, museums, and libraries will be allowed to reopen and training sessions can resume for some sports. Certain border restrictions will be eased, while trains, trams and buses, which have been running on a reduced schedule, will revert to the normal timetable.
Earlier this month, the government only authorized schools and shops to reopen in mid-May.
Officials are anxious to unlock an economy headed for its deepest downturn in decades after six weeks on hold. They said they based their decisions on both economic benefits and risk factors such as the increase in social contact and the ability of businesses to protect people.
“On May 11, we take a big step, we can go shopping again, we can go out to eat, we can go to museums, and children can go back to school,” said Interior Minister Alain Berset, warning that people would have to be disciplined to avoid a new outbreak. Hairdressers, garden centers, and hardware stores already went back to work this week.
Events drawing more than 1,000 people remain banned until the end of August. Switzerland hosts hundreds of such gatherings yearly and they contribute significantly to the economy.
The Federal Council will decide on events of less than 1,000 people next month. It said it expects to allow professional sports teams to resume play in June, but without spectators.
President Simonetta Sommaruga announced CHF 1.275 billion in state aid for Swiss International Air Lines and its sister company Edelweiss. Both are owned by Lufthansa, which is seeking a EUR 9 billion bailout from the German government. The council is also asking parliament to approve an additional CHF 600 million to support the broader aviation industry.
Both Credit Suisse and UBS issued statements of support for the airline rescue package, which consists of federal guarantees on bank loans.
“The Swiss economy and Switzerland’s population need a strong and functioning airline,” said Thomas Gottstein, chief executive officer of Credit Suisse. “As a lender, we are convinced that the Swiss Federal Council has found a viable solution.”
The council maintained its ban on gatherings of more than five people except in some sports and said all businesses and facilities must put in place measures to prevent people from transmitting the virus. For restaurants that means a maximum of four people per table and a distance of two meters between tables.
“The crisis isn’t over yet,” Sommaruga said. “We can’t immediately go back to life as it was before. We will have to live with the crisis for a while and with the economic consequences.”
Economy Minister Guy Parmelin said unemployment rose to 3.3 percent from 2.5 percent in mid-March. The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, or SECO, is forecasting a slump in gross domestic product of 6.7 percent for the year.
Switzerland recorded 143 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, taking the total to 29,407. At least 1,408 have died. The rate of infection is now about a tenth of what it was at its peak.
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At least 613 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Switzerland, but that number isn’t a reliable measure of the outbreak. The Swiss government is abandoning efforts to keep a precise count of coronavirus cases to focus instead on easing the burden on the healthcare system and protecting the most vulnerable—the elderly and those with preexisting conditions. “The government has decided that they will only test people who are at risk, who have strong symptoms,” said Michael Hengartner, president of the ETH Board. “Young people, who might have weak symptoms, will simply be asked to stay at home to minimize contagion.” The Cantonal Hospital of Lucerne has received a recommendation from the government to limit testing to the most vulnerable or severe cases, said spokesman Markus von Rotz. “Only patients who are hospitalized and health care staff will be tested for coronavirus,” said Claude Kaufmann, a spokesman for Hirslanden Private Hospital Group, which operates 17 hospitals. “Patients with fever and cough must stay at home so that they do not infect anyone.” The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health confirmed that the cases could be far higher than reported and that “people at especially high risk are tested as a priority.“ No test, no infection This raises the question of whether the count reflects the true scale of the outbreak. Many people have been keeping tabs on the daily tally from the federal health office, relying on it to provide a measure of the severity of the situation in Switzerland. The country reported its third coronavirus death Tuesday as the outbreak worsens in neighboring Italy, which has logged over 9,000 infections and 460 deaths. It also marks a change in strategy from the early days of the outbreak, when the government ramped up testing following the first confirmed case on Feb. 25. Back then, even mild cases were being counted and traced in the effort to contain the crisis. The Swiss Federal Council said Friday that tracing the infection would continue “as long as possible.” At the same time, it indicated that protecting people by minimizing contact—at work or social events—was now the bigger priority. Large events have been banned across the country but, unlike in Italy, no blanket travel restrictions have been imposed. And the Swiss border remains open to commuters from Italy. “With the infection rate that this virus has, it will basically cross across the human population,” Hengartner said. “It will become a pandemic. And the challenge for governments is to keep the infection rate low enough that we can always manage the patients that need to get hospitalized.”
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