March 23, 2020 / 2:20 PM / 9 days ago

UPDATE 1-More Swiss companies ask for aid than during financial crisis

(Adds comments from government news conference)

By John Revill and Silke Koltrowitz

ZURICH, March 23 (Reuters) - Record numbers of Swiss companies have applied for government aid to overcome shutdowns and reduced output as the coronavirus outbreak grips the country, the government said on Monday.

So far in March 21,000 companies have applied for support to help 315,000 workers put on short working hours, Boris Zuercher, head of the labour department at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, told a news conference in Bern.

The figure was significantly more than the 11,000 workers affected in February, and well above the 5,000 companies and 92,000 workers who applied for compensation at the peak of the global financial crisis in 2009.

"This increase is unparalleled," Zuercher said. "In most of the industries, more applications are expected in the next few days. Unemployment insurance is prepared for this."

Switzerland last week announced an extra 32 billion Swiss franc ($32.61 billion) aid package to support companies and workers hit by the widening outbreak.

Health authorities reported 1,046 more coronavirus infections, bringing the number of people who have tested positive in Switzerland and Liechtenstein to 8,060 as of midday on Monday. The number of deaths rose by six to 66.

Around a quarter of all companies in the southern canton of Ticino, which borders hard-hit Italy, had sought state aid to compensate workers put on short hours, Zuercher said.

Short-time working compensation is the main measure the government hopes will avoid layoffs as the epidemic rages. It worked during the financial crisis in 2009 and Zuercher said he was confident it would be successful again.

Despite the rising rate of infection, authorities remained sceptical about the public's wearing of protective masks.

Daniel Koch, head of the Federal Office of Health's communicable diseases division, said there was no evidence that wearing masks in public was effective at a time of short supplies.

Koch said: "We need 1.2 million masks per day at the moment. Therefore we do not recommend wearing masks in public." ($1 = 0.9814 Swiss francs) (Editing by Michael Shields)

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