Coronavirus: Italy's leaders row over ending lockdown

A doctor in a protective suit makes a phone call at a hotel where coronavirus patients are quarantined. PHOTO: REUTERS

ROME (AFP) - The head of Milan's economically vital Lombardy region began waging a lonely campaign on Thursday (April 16) to get Italy to end its virus lockdown and reopen for business.

"Many other European countries are already beginning to reopen. We need to immediately start thinking about our future." Attilo Fontana said on Facebook.

His online messages created a political firestorm in a country still coming to terms with a virus that has killed 22,170 and brought the economy to its knees.

Italy's official toll - believed to be substantially underreported - was the world's highest until the United States overtook it last weekend.

The economic toll is growing fast as well.

The International Monetary Fund expects Italy's total output to shrink by 9.1 per cent this year - the worst peacetime decline in nearly a century.

Millions of Italians are either furloughed or suddenly unemployed.

Lombardy boss Fontana sounded like he had had enough when he posted a message outlining his 10-million-strong region's "road to freedom".

He said businesses should follow basic social distancing rules and reopen when the current nationwide lockdown expires on May 4.

"We are not courting controversy," Fontana insisted, in response to a chorus of political criticism.

Most European governments are approaching their lockdown exits with extreme caution.

Denmark has started reopening schools for younger children and Switzerland unveiled a plan Thursday to allow some shops and services to resume business on April 27.

But bigger European nations are extending the closures for at least a few more weeks.


The vibrant Lombardy region had been punching above its weight until the pandemic hit.

It makes up over a fifth of the Mediterranean country's economy and is home to the Italian headquarters of numerous global firms.

But it also recorded more than half of Italy's confirmed Covid-19 deaths.

Italian officials still largely follow the advice of doctors who think it is best to keep the nation locked until new infections sharply drop off.

Deputy Industry Minister Stefano Buffagni called Fontana's message "an error" and Milan mayor Beppe Sala called for "a little more restraint".

But Fontana found support late Thursday from the head of Venice's Veneto region to Lombardy's east.

"Fontana's assessment is legitimate," Luca Zaia said.

"We either close everything and die wait for the virus to go away, or we reopen and live together."

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has been widely applauded for his handling of what is widely viewed as Italy's worst crisis since World War II.

But Conte has acknowledged that his decision last Friday to extend Italy's month-long shutdown for another three weeks was not popular.


Conte is still being backed by a team of leading doctors who will play a big role in deciding how and when Italy resumes something resembling normal life.

The deputy head of the government's public health council called Fontana's push premature.

"To me, it seems highly unlikely that Lombardy can reopen," Paolo Vineis told La Stampa newspaper.

"Not unless we succeed in implementing a Marshall Plan for public health and exponentially increase testing." Fontana admitted that was not yet possible.

But he added that he and Italy's Regional Affairs Minister Francesco Boccia had agreed to discuss Lombardy's push to reopen at a special meeting over the weekend.

"I will have to listen to what the government is doing," he told Italy's Sky TG24.

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