Conte defends ‘slowly-slowly’ lifting of Italy’s lockdown

The Italian prime minister has faced criticism from businesses and rivals, but enjoys surging public popularity.

Conte in Genoa - Reuters
Giuseppe Conte on Tuesday attended the inauguration ceremony of the final section of Genoa's new bridge being installed, almost two years after the Morandi bridge collapsed, killing 43 people [Filippo Attili/Palazzo Chigi Press Office/Handout/Reuters]

Italians have been under lockdown for more than seven weeks and are itching to get back outdoors, hug their friends and begin to get life back to normal.

And so Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, found himself on Tuesday defending his highly cautious plans for a slow lifting of restrictions in what has been Europe‘s longest coronavirus lockdown.

Rome has said Italians must hold out for another week, when strict curbs to slow the spread of the disease would be eased from May 4, as parks, factories and construction sites reopen.

However, shops must remain shuttered until May 18. And restaurants, bars and hairdressers will stay closed until June 1 – and children will not return to school before September.

The softly-softly approach has been criticised by businesses, lambasted by the opposition and even questioned by parties within Conte’s fragile coalition, worried by the huge economic and social toll of the long-lasting clampdown.

But the prime minister said he had no regrets.

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“If I could turn the clock back, I’d do it all again,” Conte told La Stampa daily. “I cannot let myself be swayed by public opinion, even if I understand those feelings very well myself.”

Conte acknowledged the scientific committee advising him was “rigid”, but said the overriding concern was to prevent a second wave of infections.

“If only one patient … managed to set off an outbreak and trigger such a contagion that we were forced to close all of Italy, can you imagine what could happen with the 100,000 positive cases that we have at the moment,” he said.

Despite the criticism from companies and politicians, Conte is enjoying a surge in popularity among ordinary voters. A poll published on Saturday by the Ipsos agency put his approval rating at 66 percent, up 18 points in two months.

Another survey on Monday by the Demopolis pollsters showed his decision to keep schools closed until September was backed by 78 percent of respondents.

Italy has been one of the world’s hardest-hit countries, registering almost 27,000 deaths and 200,000 cases since the first coronavirus patient was identified on February 21. At present, some 105,813 people still have the disease.

However, the numbers have been falling over the past two weeks and some regional governors have announced they will ease restrictions faster than the government wants. The northern region of Veneto, home to the world-famous canals of Venice, announced on Monday that residents could leave their homes to exercise freely – they had previously been restricted to 200 metres from their home – carry out maintenance on boats or visit second homes. Drive-through takeaways are also reopening. 

CNH Industrial – which among other brands produces Italy’s Iveco commercial vehicles – also resumed operations at four plants in Italy on Tuesday.

Businesses deemed “strategic”, including export-oriented ones, have been allowed to reopen ahead of Rome’s schedule to reduce the risk of being cut out of the production chain and losing business, providing they get the go-ahead from local authorities and safety rules for workers are in place.

“The plants are running at 20 percent to 30 percent of their capacity, with a few hundred workers back to work, out of around 4,500 normally,” a company spokesman told Reuters, following an agreement over health and safety conditions reached earlier this month with workers’ unions. 

Papal blessing

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While opposition parties such as the far-right League have repeatedly criticised Conte’s handling of the crisis, the ruling coalition has remained largely united. However, voices of discontent emerged on Tuesday.

Nicola Zingaretti, head of the centre-left Democratic Party, said more flexibility might be needed. “We also need to revisit the June 1 date, which seems a long way off,” he told Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose small Italia Viva party is in the coalition, said the government plan was a “political, economic and constitutional error”.

He told la Repubblica daily that regions with very few cases should reopen more quickly and that parliament should be able to modify the rules.

One of the most vocal critics of the prime minister’s plan was the Roman Catholic Church, which was angered by a refusal to lift a ban on religious ceremonies, including mass.

Conte has promised to review that decision and he got what appeared to be strong support from Pope Francis, who urged people to obey government instructions.

“In these days in which we are starting to have regulations to come out of quarantine, let us pray to the Lord that he gives his people, all of us, the grace of prudence and obedience … so that the pandemic does not return,” the pope said. 

Source: News Agencies