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Damage limitation underway after Sars row

The Swiss begin damage control after Hong Kong delegates are forced to leave

Switzerland is stepping up diplomatic efforts to repair its business relations with Hong Kong.

A row between the trading partners erupted after Switzerland banned Hong Kong from a major international watch fair due to fears about a deadly pneumonia virus.

Switzerland said the ban on salespeople from Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Vietnam, was intended to prevent the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or Sars, which has so far killed at least 80 people worldwide.

But the move sparked outrage from the countries affected, with Hong Kong pulling out of the fair altogether to protest the ban.

Damage

The Swiss Business Federation has voiced concern that trade ties with Asian countries, and Hong Kong especially, could be seriously damaged as a result of the row.

Presence Switzerland, the organisation responsible for promoting Switzerland's image abroad, has been working to counteract the fallout from the ban.

"The most important thing to avoid is long-lasting damage," Johannes Matyassy of Presence Switzerland, told swissinfo.

"For us it's important to inform the authorities in Hong Kong, the media and once again to talk to the business community in Hong Kong who were put in a really difficult situation here in Switzerland," he said.

Diplomacy

Matyassy says that diplomacy alone won't be enough to repair relations.

He says joint efforts from the parties involved - such as the foreign, health and economy ministries and the business community - are needed if confidence is to be re-established between the partners.

But Matyassy also defended Switzerland's stance on Sars, saying the World Health Organization had already issued a recommendation against non-essential travel to Hong Kong.

"Other countries have already taken measures that were stricter than ours. So Switzerland is not the first country to undertake such a step," Matyassy added.

Understanding

Matyassy said that the Hong Kong authorities understood why Switzerland took the security measures.

"In such a situation the health of the population has the biggest priority," he said. "That's why Switzerland had to act very quickly and in a decisive manner."

The Swiss Federal Health Office has advised its nationals against travelling to Hong Kong and the Guangdong province in southern China.

After China, Hong Kong is one of the worst affected areas with 800 reported cases and 20 deaths from the virus.

swissinfo, Vanessa Mock and Isobel Johnson

Key facts

Switzerland has reported six suspected cases of Sars.
In the latest case a Singapore Airlines pilot was admitted to hospital in Zurich on Tuesday, showing symptoms of the illness.
Many of the 1,200 Swiss that live in Hong Kong are leaving the city for fear of contracting Sars.
The Swiss consulate there has taken measures to reduce the risk of its staff being infected.
Some Swiss women and children living in China have left the country.
The WHO says it is likely the virus originated in southern China.

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