Switzerland plans cautious easing of pandemic lockdown from March

ZURICH, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Switzerland plans its first “cautious steps” to reopen the country next month after the coronavirus shutdown, the government said on Wednesday, as spending to tackle the pandemic pushed the country to its largest-ever budget deficit.

The country has been brought to a near standstill as shops and offices closed in recent weeks to tackle the emergence of new variants of the virus.

But the pace of new infections has eased recently, allowing the government to reconsider its stance. The government has been caught in the cross-fire between health experts who want stricter limits and businesses calling for a reopening.

The government “proposes a cautious, gradual opening in order to give more space to social and economic life again,” it said.

In the first step, shops, museums and libraries will be allowed to reopen from March 1. Zoos, gardens and sports facilities will also be reopened.

Private events with up to 15 people will also be allowed, said the government, up from the current limit of five.

The government will make a final decision after consulting local authorities on Feb. 24.

Meanwhile, Switzerland expects its largest-ever deficit, with a 15.8 billion franc shortfall caused by higher spending to cushion the economic impact of the pandemic.

The government spent 15 billion francs on COVID-19 related spending during 2020, mainly on short-time working schemes and loss-of-earnings compensation.

Tax receipts meanwhile fell 3.4% due to the economic downturn. The government posted a 3.6 billion franc surplus for 2019.

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 its support package for large companies hit hard by the crisis, ramping up a compensation scheme to 10 billion francs, from 5 billion francs previously.

Reporting by John Revill