Italian PM warns regions against unilateral moves to lift restrictions

ROME (Reuters) – Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Thursday some Italian regions might be able to roll back coronavirus restrictions more rapidly than others but warned local authorities against acting unilaterally.

FILE PHOTO: Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte attends a session of the lower house of parliament on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Rome, Italy April 21, 2020. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo

Italy has registered 27,682 coronavirus deaths, the highest tally in Europe, and has introduced some of the toughest lockdown measures in the world, which look certain to tip the fragile economy into a deep recession.

But regions run by rightist parties, who are not part of the national government, have kicked back against plans for a gradual, staggered easing of curbs that Conte says is vital to prevent a renewed surged of infections.

Highlighting the growing discord, Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, 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.

In a speech to parliament, Conte said he would be willing to work with regions in future to enable them to relax measures ahead of time 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.

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

Conte acknowledged that the economy faced an unprecedented slump and confirmed the latest Treasury forecast for a contraction of 15% in the first half of the year.

Data released on Thursday showed the economy shrank by 4.7% in the first quarter from the previous three months thanks to the lockdown. However, the slump was less pronounced than expected, with a Reuters poll forecasting a 5.0% quarterly fall.

Conte said a new stimulus package to support the economy, due to be presented in a few days, would include 15 billion euros ($16.3 billion) for companies and 25 billion directly for payroll workers and the self-employed.

Acknowledging that the slow withdrawal of restrictions was causing upset, Conte said he had to act cautiously to avoid a potentially catastrophic resurgence of 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.

Reporting by Giuseppe Fonte, writing by Crispian Balmer and Gavin Jones, Editing by Angus MacSwan

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