March 18, 2020 / 7:42 PM / 10 days ago

UPDATE 1-Greece vows to protect jobs as virus hits growth expectations

(Updates with finance minister comments on growth)

ATHENS, March 18 (Reuters) - The Greek economy will grow only slightly this year due to the impact of coronavirus, the finance minister said on Wednesday, hours after the government said it would spend up to 450 million euros to protect jobs during the epidemic.

Greece, which exited its latest bailout in 2018 and is recovering after a multi-year downturn, had previously estimated economic growth of 2.8 percent this year.

“Our estimate for the growth rate this year is that we will be just a little over 0%,” Finance Minister Christos Staikouras told ANT1 television, forecasting lower revenues because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The government said earlier it would spend up to 450 million euros ($490 million) to protect half a million jobs during the epidemic, offering financial incentives to firms hit by a retail lockdown if they refrained from sacking staff.

Greece reported 31 more coronavirus cases on Wednesday, bringing the total number of people infected in the country to 418. It has reported five deaths.

It shut down all retailers other than chemists, supermarkets and gas stations on Wednesday for at least 10 days to try to contain the spread.

Companies hit by the shutdown would have an extra four months to make VAT and social security payments due this March, provided they retained all staff for the duration of the outbreak, Staikouras told a news conference.

On the same condition, the government would also provide funding of up to 1 billion euros to businesses suffering big declines in turnover. The funds would have to be repaid.

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 sanitizer 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 = 0.9189 euros) (Reporting by George Georgiopoulos and Michele Kambas; Editing by Nick Tattersall)

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