Rome: Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said his country will start easing lockdown restrictions on May 4, setting up a key test of Europe’s efforts to restart public life and economies immobilized by the coronavirus.
With a cautious reopening under way in several countries such as Germany, pressure in Italy has been building even as it suffers Europe’s highest virus-related death toll. Conte warned that a second wave of infections would cause a resurgence of deaths and “irreversible damage” to the economy.
“We all want the country to restart,” the premier said at a briefing late Sunday in Rome. “But the only way to live with the virus in this phase is to not fall ill — and social distancing.”
Hours earlier, Italy reported the fewest deaths over a 24-hour period in six weeks and France counted the fewest in a month. Spain’s increase was the smallest in more than a month.
France and Spain, the country with the most confirmed infections in Europe, also signaled tentative moves to restart their economies after weeks of lockdowns.
Italian leaders are trying to save an economy that’s headed for an 8% contraction this year and trailed its euro-area peers even before the pandemic.
Construction and manufacturing wholesalers will be the first sectors to be allowed to reopen, with retailers and museums to follow two weeks later and bars, restaurants and barbers potentially on June 1, according to Conte. Schools will not reopen until September.
Yet if people in Italy fail to respect rules including social distancing, the curve of contagion “will rise and could become out of control, the number of our dead will increase and our economy will suffer irreversible damage,” Conte said.
One area of conflict: access to churches and other religious sites. While Conte said family members will again be allowed to attend funeral services for loved ones, other restrictions on religious rites remain in place. The premier clashed over the weekend with some members of his government over reopening churches, ultimately deciding to heed the advice of medical and scientific advisers to keep places of worship closed.
“You can go to a museum but not celebrate a religious rite?,” Equal Opportunity and Family Minister Elena Bonetti said in a tweet. “This decision is incomprehensible, it will be changed.” The continued ban on celebrating Mass is “absurd,” Agriculture Minister Teresa Bellanova said in an interview with la Repubblica, in which she ripped the prime minister’s reopening plan as “not very courageous”. Both ministers are members of ex-Premier Matteo Renzi’s small Italy Alive party.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will present a plan to unwind his country’s lockdown on Tuesday. The government intends to ease some of the measures, with schools set to be first to reopen, though officials haven’t finalized their plans, according to news reports.
With more than 100,000 deaths in the region, Europe has been hit hard by Covid-19 and is bracing for the worst recession in living memory. The crisis has exposed long-standing political rifts, with leaders struggling to approve 540 billion euros ($584 billion) of short-term support measures and failing to make progress on a longer-term plan.
France and Spain are leading a group calling for the continent’s recovery to be funded by grants from a supercharged European Union budget, while the Netherlands and Austria are among those insisting the additional funds should take the form of loans.
Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s economic and financial affairs commissioner, called for a roughly 1.5 trillion-euro recovery fund to be available by mid-September. It should disburse both loans and grants, he said in an Italian television interview.
In Germany, new infections held at fewer than 2,000 for a second day on Sunday, though government officials warned against easing restrictions too quickly.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas damped expectations of an early reopening of European travel destinations.
“A European race to see who will allow tourist travel first will lead to unacceptable risks,” Maas said in an interview with Bild am Sonntag.
In the U.K. the death toll topped 20,000 on Saturday, the fifth-highest in the world, and business has slowed to a crawl.
The U.K. reported a decline in deaths on Sunday to 413, the lowest since March 31.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was hospitalized with a serious case of Covid-19, is due to return to work on Monday, where he’ll face decisions about how and when to ease the lockdown.
Six business leaders, including Conservative Party billionaire donors Michael Spencer and Peter Hargreaves, wrote to the government asking it to ease restrictions, according to the Sunday Times.
“We should really begin to offer a narrative of how and when it’s going to stop,” Spencer told the newspaper. – Bloomberg