Italy’s PM tries to manage expectations as some regions eager to reopen

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Thursday some Italian regions might be able to unwind coronavirus restrictions more rapidly than others but warned local authorities against rushed, unilateral rollbacks.

Italy has registered 27,967 coronavirus deaths, the highest tally in Europe, and has introduced some of the world’s toughest lockdown measures, which look certain to tip the fragile economy into a deep recession.

But regions run by conservative parties, which are not part of the ruling government coalition, have kicked back against plans for a gradual, nationwide easing of restrictions, saying the proposed schedule, due to kick off on Monday, is too timid.

Highlighting the growing discord, Calabria, the southernmost region in Italy dealing with an outbreak, has announced that bars and restaurants in its region can reopen immediately so long as they have outdoor tables – a month ahead of the government’s proposed schedule.

Italy’s outbreak has been concentrated in the northern regions of Lombardy, around the financial capital Milan, and neighbouring Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna.

In a speech to parliament, Conte said he would be willing to work with regions to enable them to relax measures more quickly if they had particularly low rates of infection.

“There will not be a plan based on sudden initiatives by individual local authorities, but rather one based on scientific findings,” Conte said, warning that a rapid end to restrictions could fuel the contagion and lead to a surge in infections.

“I’ll say this clearly, at the risk of appearing unpopular. The government cannot immediately ensure a return to normality … we are still in this pandemic,” he said.

Autonomous moves by regions would be considered illegitimate, he said, opening the way for confrontations with regional chiefs set on defying the central government.

Former PM wants more focus on economy

Conte also faced internal dissent within his own coalition, with former prime minister Matteo Renzi, who heads the small Italia Viva party, warning he would bring down the government unless it paid more attention to reviving the economy.

Renzi, whose party’s popularity has evaporated even as Conte’s own approval ratings have soared, accused the prime minister of bypassing parliament and taking too many key decisions himself — something Conte has denied.

Conte acknowledged the economy faces an unprecedented slump and confirmed the latest Treasury forecast for a contraction of 15 per cent in the first half of the year.

A man rides a bicycle as Milan reallocates road space previously used by cars to new bicycle lanes and pedestrian pathways. Italy’s outbreak has been concentrated in the northern regions of Lombardy, around the financial capital Milan. (Daniele Mascolo/Reuters)

Data released on Thursday showed the economy shrank by 4.7 per cent in the first quarter from the previous three months. 

Conte said a new stimulus package to support the economy, due to be presented in a few days, would include 15 billion euros ($22.8 billion Cdn) for companies and 25 billion ($38 billion Cdn) directly for payroll workers and the self-employed.

Looking to soothe tensions, Conte said he would consider limited reopenings of nursery schools and summer camps to let more parents return to work. At present, all schools are set to remain closed until at least September.