ROME (Reuters) – Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte defended himself on Tuesday from widespread criticism of his highly cautious plans for a slow-placed end to Europe’s longest coronavirus lockdown.
The government has said strict curbs put in place seven weeks ago to curb the disease would be eased from May 4, when parks, factories and construction sites reopen.
However shops must remain shuttered until May 18, while restaurants, bars and hairdressers will stay closed until June 1 and students won’t be back at school before September.
The softly-softly approach has been criticised by businesses, lambasted by the opposition and even questioned by parties within Conte’s fragile coalition, worried by the huge economic and social toll of the long-lasting clampdown.
But the prime minister said he had no regrets.
“If I could turn the clock back, I’d do it all again,” Conte told La Stampa daily. “I cannot let myself be swayed by public opinion, even if I understand those feelings very well myself.”
Conte acknowledged the scientific committee advising him was “rigid”, but said the overriding concern was to prevent a second wave of infections.
“If only one patient … managed to set off an outbreak and trigger such a contagion that we were forced to close all of Italy, can you imagine what could happen with the 100,000 positive cases that we have at the moment,” he said.
Despite the criticism from companies and politicians, Conte is enjoying a surge in popularity among ordinary voters. A poll published on Saturday by the Ipsos agency put his approval rating at 66%, up 18 points in two months.
Another survey on Monday by the Demopolis pollsters showed his decision to keep schools closed until September was backed by 78% of respondents.
Italy has been one of the world’s hardest-hit countries, registering almost 27,000 deaths and 200,000 cases since the first coronavirus patient was identified on Feb. 21. At present, some 105,813 people still have the disease.
However, the numbers have been falling over the past two weeks and some regional governors have announced they will ease restrictions faster than the government wants.
While opposition parties such as the far-right League have repeatedly criticised Conte’s handling of the crisis, the ruling coalition has remained largely united. However, voices of discontent emerged on Tuesday.
Nicola Zingaretti, head of the centre-left Democratic Party, said more flexibility might be needed. “We also need to revisit the June 1 date, which seems a long way off,” he told Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose small Italia Viva party is in the coalition, said the government plan was a “political, economic and constitutional error”.
He told la Repubblica daily that regions with very few cases should reopen more quickly and that parliament should be able to modify the rules.
One of the most vocal critics of the prime minister’s plan was the Roman Catholic Church, which was angered by a refusal to lift a ban on religious ceremonies, including the Mass.
Conte has promised to review that decision and he got what appeared to be strong support from Pope Francis, who urged people to obey government instructions.
“In these days in which we are starting to have regulations to come out of quarantine, let us pray to the Lord that he gives his people, all of us, the grace of prudence and obedience … so that the pandemic does not return,” the pope said.
(Additional reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Giles Elgood)