Italy to ramp up spending on coronavirus as death toll soars to 827

ROME (Reuters) – Italy will ramp up spending to soften the blow from coronavirus and could restrict movement further to slow its spread, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Wednesday, as the death toll jumped by 196 in 24 hours to 827.

It was the highest daily increase in absolute terms registered anywhere in the world since the virus emerged in China at the end of last year. Confirmed cases across Italy rose to 12,462 from a previous 10,149.

Acknowledging the escalating emergency, Conte told reporters the government would allocate 25 billion euros ($28.3 billion) to help mitigate the impact on the fragile economy. Only a week ago, he estimated it would need just 7.5 billion euros.

After an initial lockdown in the north failed to prevent the spread, the government on Monday banned all non-essential travel and public gatherings throughout Italy until April 3, halted all sports events and extended a shutdown of schools.

The measures did not go as far as stopping trains and public transport, as China did in the coronavirus epicenter of Wuhan, but regional chiefs in the north of Italy urged the government to follow the Chinese lead and block most day-to-day activities.

“I want to see the roads empty, lights off in the bars, the beaches empty, the squares deserted,” said Luca Zaia, governor of the affluent Veneto region. Only four days ago he had accused Conte of an over-exaggerated response to the epidemic.

Conte said on Wednesday he was ready to act on requests from the north, but that any fresh measures, such as closing businesses and stores, could not be taken lightly.

“The main objective is to protect citizens’ health, but we must take into account that there are other interests at stake. We must be aware that there are civil liberties that are being violated. We must always proceed carefully.”

The mayor of the southern city of Messina in Sicily had no such qualms, saying he planned to introduce a curfew and allow only food stores to remain open. Cateno De Luca said Messina could only count on 10 intensive care beds, meaning it would be unable to cope with mass infections.

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Elderly people are particularly susceptible to the virus and Italy has the oldest population in Europe, with 23% aged 65 or above. Experts say this might be the reason why the fatality rate here is 6.6% – significantly higher than elsewhere.

Most Italians appear to be respecting the most severe controls placed on a Western nation since World War Two, with traffic much quieter than usual in major cities, many shops and restaurants closed and only a few flights operating.

Russia and Slovenia became the latest countries to curb travel from Italy, the worst affected country in Europe, which is increasingly isolated from the outside world.

An opinion poll by the Ixe agency showed 89% of Italians backed their authorities’ draconian measures, with 78% saying they would support even tougher steps, even though 76% thought the existing ones would have a “grave” impact on the economy.

Highlighting the human cost of the outbreak, the government said the head of the medical association in the northern city of Varese, 67-year-old Roberto Stella, had died of the virus.

Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri said that Italy, which has the second highest debt pile in Europe after Greece, might need help from European Union funds to take some of the burden off its public finances.

The extra spending announced on Wednesday means Italy’s 2020 budget deficit looks certain to climb above 3% of national output, a ceiling set by EU rules.

Gualtieri, who last week forecast a deficit of 2.5%, declined on Wednesday to give a new target and warned that Italy’s economy could see a “significant contraction” in full-year 2020 GDP growth.

He reiterated a pledge that nobody should lose their job as a result of the crisis and said the government was looking at measures to free up bank capital to help support hardpressed companies and families.

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