MILAN/ROME – Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte tried to ward off alarm from spreading throughout Europe’s fourth-biggest economy after he personally unveiled draconian measures in the middle of the night to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
In a hastily convened news conference, the head of a government already hanging by a thread confirmed Italy planned to dramatically restrict movement and activity for a quarter of its population in the economic powerhouse that is the region around Milan.
As news of the measures leaked, it was clear Italians were having an immediate reaction. Video footage on social media showed people rushing to get on the last train out and escape a virtual lockdown that will see people housebound. Schools have already been shut as tourism has ground to a halt and businesses take a hit in a country already on the brink of recession.
Conte’s latest effort at damage control comes as cases surged to 5,883 on Saturday with 233 deaths.
It also came as Nicola Zingaretti, the leader of one of the two major government parties, announced he had contracted the illness.
Yet Conte’s late appearance, and an attack on “unacceptable” leaks, did little to dispel concern that this was a government with a tenuous grasp of a rapidly evolving national emergency. Conte said he would take “political responsibility” for managing the crisis.
A key test of whether he succeeded will come Monday, when investors will assess the impact of his actions on Italy’s already weakened economy.
Spreads between Italian and German bonds have crept up since the coronavirus crisis erupted but have so far remained below the average of the past year. A spike in yields would put further strain on Italy’s debt just as the government prepares to widen the deficit to prop up the economy.
Conte’s announcement came after an early draft of the new norms did the rounds and sparked confusion. Images abounded of Italians crowding trains from Milan and the north to make their way south before the restrictions took force.
The regulations are set to come into force “within hours,” Conte said. They are to last until April 3, according to the draft. A final text is still to be published.
The bans will stop anyone from entering or exiting the most-affected areas, while movement inside will be allowed only for demonstrable business or health reasons, the draft said. Skiing, public events, religious ceremonies and work meetings will be suspended, while schools, museums, swimming pools and theaters will close.
Bars and restaurants will have to make sure patrons keep at least a meter apart or they will be shut. The draft specifies that failing to respect the measures is a criminal offense, and might lead to imprisonment. Police and the army will be responsible for ensuring that containment measures are respected.
The restrictions will apply across Lombardy and in 14 provinces around cities including Venice, Modena, Parma, Rimini and Treviso. A large part of the Piedmont region is also affected but not Turin, the regional capital and the headquarters of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.
A second draft decree with new containment rules for the rest of the country recommends citizens avoid travel outside their hometowns unless absolutely necessary, and restricts public events. The government is set to approve both decrees in a meeting Saturday evening.
With Italy’s economy already about to contract before the outbreak, the crisis has all but paralyzed business activity in Lombardy — which accounts for a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product — and the rest of the north, Italy’s economic engine.
The government decided on Thursday to double emergency spending to €7.5 billion ($8.4 billion) to help cushion the economic impact of the virus.
It is also calling up 20,000 doctors, nurses and medical personnel to help deal with the outbreak. Fallout from the virus’s spread is slamming Italy’s key tourism industry at a time when it is already teetering on the brink of recession.
The European Commission’s top economic officials approved Italy’s spending plans, saying in a letter to the government in Rome that its stimulus plans won’t be factored in when assessing Italian compliance with the European Union’s fiscal rules.
In the United States, health officials were struggling to explain the government’s difficulty in creating a diagnostic tool to contain the disease.
The U.S. has tested fewer than 6,000 samples of suspected cases, the top drug regulator acknowledged. Food and Drug Commissioner Stephen Hahn said the government doesn’t know how many people have been tested.
The U.S. response is set to ramp up substantially, Hahn and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said as deaths nationwide reached 19. About 1.1 million tests have been shipped in the past week and another 1 million are being prepared.
The Associated Press reported that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been overruled by the White House when it recommended that elderly and frail Americans shouldn’t take commercial flights because of the virus.
The CDC updated its website on March 6 to advise older adults and people with severe medical conditions to “stay home as much as possible” and avoid crowds.
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