Italy PM looks to ease curbs after first fall in virus cases

Italy PM looks to ease curbs after first fall in virus cases
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte adjusts his face mask as he arrives at the Lower Chamber of Deputies of the Italian Parliament, in Rome, Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 21 April 2020

Italy PM looks to ease curbs after first fall in virus cases

Italy PM looks to ease curbs after first fall in virus cases
  • Plans to restart ailing economy as health chief hails ‘positive signs’

ROME: Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Tuesday that he will reveal plans to ease coronavirus restrictions and restart the economy after the country reported its first drop in infections since the outbreak began in February.

With almost 25,000 deaths so far, Italy has a higher coronavirus toll than any other European country and is second in the world only to the US with 40,000 fatalities.

On March 9, it was the first European country to order a national quarantine, with regions such as Lombardy and Veneto imposing lockdowns even earlier. After two extensions, the national lockdown is due to expire on May 3.

Conte said that he will announce moves to ease restrictions and restart the economy by the weekend.

The Italian leader must balance the need to prevent a fresh spike in infections while avoiding additional damage to the economy.
Italy is pinning its hopes on recent positive trends, with the number of people in intensive care also falling to its lowest level in a month as Europe’s hardest-hit country began to see the first direct benefits of its economically devastating lockdown.

“For the first time, we have seen a new positive development — the number of currently positive has declined,” Angelo Borrelli, the Civil Protection Agency chief, told a news conference.

“The number in intensive care is the lowest it has been in a month,” he added.

However, those figures are widely regarded as estimates rather than actual tallies. Most Italian doctors believe the number of deaths and infections is much higher than those officially reported. People who died at home or in care facilities are not included and some of the hardest-hit regions have tested only the most severely ill patients.

Some experts believe the true human cost of the pandemic will be revealed in the number of excess deaths registered in the past few months.

In northern Italy, where the outbreak began, some provinces have seen the number of deaths over a single month increase by a factor of four or five, even though the official virus tolls were relatively small.

However, Civil Protection experts said the fall in the number of reported cases marks a turning point as Italy considers easing restrictions and weighs up extending the lockdown beyond May 3.

The economic and psychological toll of the six-week lockdown is hard to quantify. Figures released at the weekend said that half the country’s official workforce of 23 million have sought government aid because they were furloughed or unemployed as a result of the outbreak.

“I would like to say, let’s open everything now. But such a decision would be irresponsible. It would make the contagion curve rise uncontrollably and would jeopardize all the efforts we’ve made until now,” Conte wrote in a social media post before addressing Parliament on what aid the country is likely to receive from the EU in the next few weeks.

The prime minister laid out the difficulties of the so-called “phase 2” in reopening the economy, saying a plan would be presented “before the end of this week.”

“A reasonable expectation is that we will apply it from May 4. We have to reopen on the basis of policy that takes into consideration all the details and cuts across all the data. A serious policy, scientific,” Conte said.

If businesses reopen, officials will need to consider how workers get to and from work, in order to avoid congestion that could open the door to new contagion.

“We cannot afford ‘rush hours’ anymore, so we will have to find a sustainable solution on how to commute,” he added.

After a two-month long lockdown, with people allowed to leave their houses only to go to supermarkets or pharmacies and to walk no more than 250 m from their residences, Italians are impatient to return to work.
Some businesses, such as bookstores and selected professional firms, have reopened, with queues forming outside bookshops in Rome and Milan, while the noise of traffic is returning to some streets after weeks of near silence.

Meanwhile, the Umbria and Basilicata regions are calling for an immediate end to the quarantine after studies revealed that infection has stopped in both areas.

However, the same studies showed that the zero infection target will not be achieved before the end of June in northern regions such as Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont.

With a longer lockdown possible, scientists are pushing the government to carry out psychological tests to determine how long people can stay confined to their homes.