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October 27, 2020


ITALY: Covid-19 rules

BY Wolfango Piccoli

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The cabinet will meet today (27 October) in the afternoon to finalize a relief package for workers and businesses that will suffer due to the restrictions that came into effect yesterday. The package is expected to be worth a few billion (max around EUR 4-5bn), with resources already allocated being repurposed and/or fast-tracked. Reacting to record increases in infections, the government ordered the 6pm closure of bars and restaurants and the complete closure of gyms, swimming pools, cinemas, theatres, and ski stations. Italians have also been urged to avoid travel and not to invite people to their homes. These measures – the harshest public health restrictions since the end of the national lockdown in May – will remain in effect until 24 November. Some regions, including Lombardy and Piedmont, have also imposed nighttime curfews.

The government has been forced to unveil economic assistance quickly as anti-lockdown protests, which in some cities turned violent, flared across the country over the past few days. However, the economic package that will be presented later today is unlikely to calm tensions. An SWG poll indicated that 61% of the Italians oppose the new restrictions, while Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s standing in the public’s eyes has also weakened. Sensing an opportunity to inflict damage to the shaky ruling coalition, the right-wing opposition led by Lega and Fratelli d’Italia has condemned the latest restrictions saying they will wreck the economy and threatened to seek legal action to reverse the government’s decree. Conte is also under pressure from his own allies – Matteo Renzi, whose centrist Italia Viva (IV) party backs the government, has already asked him to amend the decree.

More critically, though, the government is struggling on the communication front to reassure the public and secure the necessary buying in for the measures to be effective. Looking ahead, the risk is that the fear that prevailed during the first wave could now turn into rage and defiance against the new curbs. The decree issued on 25 October was the third enacted in 12 days – a frantic activity suggesting that the government, at best, is reactive and behind the curve and, at worst, has lost control of the situation.

Italy is now facing an exponential surge in Covid-19 cases badly unprepared. A comprehensive test-and-trace system is still not in place (the daily test capacity is around 170-180k, well below the necessary 300k). Although the government allocated resources for more than 5,500 additional hospital beds in ICUs, most of these units never materialized. The government also failed to prevent predictable congestion in public transport as schools and businesses reopened after the summer break.

As a result of its overall inability to deal with a second wave (positive cases have been increasing since mid-August while Rome overlooked the issue), the government is now running short of options to avoid a full lockdown. Going forward, the more critical issue is the ICU admission rate, especially as the ongoing surge is hitting hard some southern regions where the health system is notoriously weaker. As of yesterday, the number of patients in ICUs was 1,284, while the total number of ICUs available is around 6,450. However, the critical saturation point identified by the relevant scientific committee is 2,300 patients in ICUs. At the current rate of daily ICU admission, the nationwide saturation threshold could be reached in around one week. This has already been reached in the Umbria region, while in others (especially Campania and Piedmont), the spare capacity before hitting the saturation point is very limited.