ATHENS, March 18 (Reuters) - Greece’s government said on Wednesday it would spend up to 450 million euros to protect half a million jobs during the coronavirus epidemic, offering financial incentives to firms hit by a retail lockdown if they refrained from sacking staff.
Greece has 387 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection and five fatalities, a relatively low toll compared to many other European countries.
To try to slow its spread, the government on Tuesday ordered a shutdown of all retailers other than chemists, supermarkets and gas stations, effective Wednesday and lasting at least 10 days.
Finance Minister Christos Staikouras said companies hit by the shutdown would have an extra four months to make VAT and social security payments falling due this March, provided they retained all their staff for the duration of the outbreak.
The government will also, under the same condition, provide funding of up to 1 billion euros ($1.10 billion) to businesses suffering big declines in turnover. The funds will have to be paid back at some point.
“We are in the beginning of a battle whose intensity and length is unknown,” Staikouras said. “We are taking measures ... to emerge as winners.”
Greek unemployment stood at 16.3% in December, one of the highest rates in the European Union.
Greece will also reduce VAT on hygiene products that help against coronavirus infections such as masks, soap and sanitiser to 6% from 24%.
Staikouras said banks were already complying with a recommendation to offer coronavirus-hit businesses a six-month freeze on loan payments.
The tax revenue agency will also speed up payment of tax refund arrears of up to 30,000 euros, he said.
$1 = 0.9104 euros Reporting by George Georgiopoulos; editing by John Stonestreet