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UPDATE 1-Switzerland plans cautious easing of pandemic lockdown from March

(Adds details, comments from government members)

ZURICH, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Switzerland plans to make its first “cautious steps” towards ending its coronavirus lockdown next month, the government said on Wednesday, contrasting with neighbours that are sticking with many restrictions.

In the first step, shops, museums and libraries are due to reopen from March 1. Zoos, gardens and sports facilities will also be reopened, with a final decision to come on Feb. 24.

Ministers have been caught being caught between health experts supporting stricter limits and struggling businesses calling for a reopening, but a easing in the number of infections has allowed the government to change course.

“The efforts of the last few months are now paying off, the population has been very disciplined,” said Health Minister Alain Berset.

“New infections have halved within a month, so the situation is not so bad. We would all like to do more activities again, such as sports.”

With the initial reopening, private events with up to 15 people would also be allowed, said the government, up from the current limit of five.

Switzerland’s reopening contrasts with neighbouring Austria which will decide on March 1 on a potential loosening of pandemic restrictions that happen around Easter, at the earliest.

“We’re taking a risk, but we think that’s acceptable as long as everybody plays along,” Berset told a press conference in Bern.

Additional easing from April 1 could follow if infections remain low, he added.

Measures to cushion the economic impact of the pandemic will push Switzerland into a 15.8 billion Swiss franc ($17.59 billion) deficit for 2020, due mainly to higher spending and lower tax receipts.

Still, the government said it would expand its spending to deal with the pandemic, which has so far claimed 9,128 lives.

It has decided to expand support package for large companies hit hard by the crisis, ramping up a compensation scheme to 10 billion francs, from 5 billion francs previously. ($1 = 0.8981 Swiss francs) (Reporting by John Revill and John Miller, editing by Mihcael Shields)

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