ROME (Reuters) – Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Friday he would hike this year’s budget deficit further in order to support the economy hit by a worsening coronavirus crisis and promised to intensify Italy’s vaccination drive.
Speaking at an inoculation centre at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, Draghi also played down health concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine, which some countries have suspended following the deaths of a handful of people who had taken it.
“I will propose to parliament … a new increase in the deficit,” said Draghi, who took office a month ago at the head of a government of national unity.
Rome’s most recent estimate was for a deficit-to-GDP ratio of 8.8% this year, down only slightly from 9.5% in 2020 when the economy shrank by 8.9%, Italy’s steepest recession since World War Two.
Draghi spoke shortly after the cabinet approved a decree ordering a nationwide lockdown over the Easter weekend. It also toughened curbs on economic activity and freedom of movement from Monday to try to rein in a rise in COVID-19 infections.
Italy has reported more than 100,000 deaths from the disease since discovering its first cases 13 months ago, the seventh highest toll worldwide.
Draghi said a new decree to be presented next week will extend furlough schemes, bolster income support for the poor and simplify procedures to compensate firms whose revenue have been hit by COVID closures.
This package of measures, worth 32 billion euros ($38.17 billion), was already budgeted for by the previous government, while Draghi said he would ask parliament in April for authorisation to increase spending further.
Draghi said Italy’s medicines authority believed there was no link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and recent deaths of people who had taken it, which prompted Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Bulgaria to suspend the vaccine and Italy to block a batch.
Italy is currently vaccinating some 170,000 people per day, the prime minister said, adding: “The goal is to triple that quickly.”
Amid reports of many Italians managing to get vaccinated ahead of the elderly and chronically sick, Draghi appealed for a sense of responsibility.
“I ask everyone to wait their turn,” he said, citing the example of the 79-year-old head of state Sergio Mattarella, who was only vaccinated this week.
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(Reporting by Gavin Jones, Angelo Amante and Giuseppe Fonte, writing by Gavin Jones, editing by Crispian Balmer)