Italy Premier Conte Extends Nationwide Lockdown to May 3

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte extended Italy’s nationwide lockdown until May 3, rejecting pressure from businesses which had been clamoring for a chance to restart activities as containment measures weigh on the economy.

The sweeping restrictions, which include a ban on all non-essential business, are crippling Europe’s weakest large economy, burdened by high debt and low growth even before the virus hit. But the risk of sparking a second wave of infections by relaxing the curbs was seen as too high.

In a combative evening news conference, Conte told reporters he was prolonging the restrictions, which had been due to expire on April 13, while allowing a limited number of firms and shops to restart their activities. After May 3, he said he hoped for a gradual restart of normal life, though strict health protocols will remain in place.

“There are clear indications that the restrictive measures are bearing fruit,” Conte said. “If we yield now we would risk, as our experts tell us, losing all the positive results we have conquered so far.” Italy cannot allow itself “a new explosion or the growth of the curve of infections,” he added.

Businesses, especially in the hard-hit industrial north, had been hoping for a swift reopening of the economy. But medical and scientific advisers urged the premier to keep lockdown rules as tight as possible as long as infection rates remain significant.

Bloomberg Economics forecasts a contraction of Italy’s economy of more than 6% in the first quarter, and UniCredit SpA sees gross domestic product dropping 15% this year.

The Italian restrictions have kept all non-essential businesses closed since last month, banned movement within the country and confined people to their homes except for work, health or emergency reasons.

Conte on Friday made limited concessions, as some businesses will be allowed to reopen, including bookshops and stationery stores and sellers of baby clothes, as well as companies linked to forestry.

Saying that Italy “cannot wait for the virus to disappear completely,” he announced the appointment of Vittorio Colao, the former chief executive officer of Vodafone Group Plc, to head a task force that will help map Italy’s exit from the lockdown.

The increase in new cases seems to be stabilizing in recent days, despite a surge in testing that has revealed many previously undetected infections. Italy has suffered 18,849 fatalities from the disease, civil protection officials said.

‘Insufficient’ Response

Conte also vowed to continue pushing for the issuance of common European debt, so-called eurobonds, as the best instrument for the European Union response to the devastating economic impact of the crisis.

Euro-area finance ministers on Thursday agreed on a 540 billion-euro ($590 billion) package of measures, including a temporary fund to help kick-start the recovery. But they skirted the thorniest issue of how the fund will be financed, mentioning only “innovative financial instruments” rather than making an explicit reference to joint debt issuance as demanded by Italy and other countries.

Conte also fought back against accusations by the League party’s Matteo Salvini and other opposition leaders that his government had signed up to seek the help of the European Stability Mechanism, the euro area’s bailout fund.

He said Italy won’t tap a credit line worth as much as 240 billion euros for medical spending, and threatened to reject any “insufficient” response package.

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