June 23, 2020 / 9:32 PM / 11 days ago

Chilean mines minister calls for 'balance' between safety and keeping economy running

SANTIAGO, June 23 (Reuters) - Chile's Mining Minister Baldo Prokurica on Tuesday underlined the need to strike a balance between protecting mine workers from the new coronavirus and keeping the economic engine of the world's largest copper producer running.

Prokurica said the "indispensable" mining sector had stood down around half its workforce and tightened health protocols in response to the outbreak of the virus in Chile in March.

But if the government is to sustain emergency social support packages to address economic fallout from the pandemic, the mining industry needs to keep operating, he said.

"It is very important that we find a balance between keeping mining on its feet ... and safeguarding the lives and health of workers," he said.

Chile in May declared its copper industry among the least-affected by the pandemic globally, with a drop off of just 1% in output. As many as 5,000 new cases are now being registered each day.

Last week, state-owned copper miner Codelco, the world`s largest, announced a strengthening of safety measures including a 14-day on, 14-day off shift schedule and the suspension of some construction projects after two workers died from COVID-19. Labor unions rejected the measures as insufficient. nL1N2DZ1IE

The government has announced lockdowns for the mines-heavy Antofagasta Region to begin on Tuesday.

The changes have sparked speculation among analysts about a potential drop in output.

Chile´s central bank president on Tuesday warned that any potential impact on production would have a knock-on effect on the economy.

Mario Marcel told a business seminar in Santiago that in Peru, the world's second largest copper producer, a 40% drop in April economic activity was "largely" because government quarantines affected its mining sector.

"What would happen if mining was affected more? Of course, the impact on the economy would be greater," he said.

"It is therefore important that the industry itself guarantees safe conditions for workers to minimize the risk of contagion, and to maintain its continuity." (Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Tom Brown)

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