ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Wednesday that Italy must stick with its rigid lockdown to try to curb the COVID-19 epidemic, rejecting calls from businesses to reopen factories.
“Scientists are telling us not to ease the restrictive measures at all,” Conte told German newspaper Bild in an interview, according to audio files released to the press.
The premier said he was confident that if Italians respected the government’s curbs on work and movement, the data on new infections and fatalities would improve, “but we have to continue with this rigour.”
The Civil Protection Agency reported on Wednesday that the daily tally of deaths in Italy, the country with the most fatalities in the world, had declined from the day before, but new infections accelerated.
Businesses in the country’s northern industrial heartland have been urging the government to allow them to reopen as soon as next week, even though the north is the area worst hit by the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, local branches of employers’ lobby Confindustria representing the four northern regions of Lombardy, Veneto, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna, called on the government to set out a “roadmap” to go back to work.
“The country risks turning off its motor forever and every day that passes represents a greater risk that we won’t be able to start it up again,” said the industrialists in the regions that jointly represent 45% of Italy’s economic output.
“Extending the lockdown means continuing not to produce, losing clients, international relations and income, meaning many companies won’t be able to pay their employees’ salaries next month,” the Confindustria branches said in a joint letter.
However, after the latest data was published on Wednesday the country’s top health officials urged the government to resist the pressure.
“The trend of the epidemic curve is not declining, it is slowing, we are looking at a plateau,” Ranieri Guerra, an Italian World Health Organisation official told reporters.
Guerra, who sits on a committee of experts advising the government, warned there remained a large pool of contagious people without symptoms and until there was a clear downtrend in infections it would be unwise to ease the lockdown.
“I don’t think the government wants to proceed with any re-opening without taking into account this risk,” Guerra said.
Health Minister Roberto Speranza said he shared “the line of rigour and caution” expressed by Guerra and the committee of experts.
Italy is in the desperate situation of having both the highest coronavirus death toll in the world and also a chronically sluggish economy which was teetering on the verge of recession even before the virus outbreak hit.
Its gross domestic product fell 0.3% in the last quarter of 2019 from the previous three months and, with most businesses now shuttered, economists expect a GDP drop of between 6% and 11% this year.
Italy registered 542 new deaths from the coronavirus on Wednesday, bringing the total official tally since the outbreak came to light on Feb. 21 to 17,669
Reporting by Giuseppe Fonte, writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Kirsten Donovan