Coronavirus: Italy looks to lift strictest lockdown measures as cases plateau

Social distancing and face masks to remain but testing and contact tracing ramped up

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Health authorities in Italy said they may soon be able to start easing lockdown restrictions as the country recorded its lowest daily coronavirus death toll in more than two weeks.

In a ray of hope for a country considered to be the worst hit by the pandemic, 525 deaths on Sunday was the smallest daily increase since March 19, bringing the total number of deaths to 15,887.

The number of patients in Italy’s overstretched intensive care units fell for a second day and officials reported the first decline in the number of non-critical Covid-19 patients receiving hospital treatment across the country's 22 regions.

That fell from 29,010 on Saturday to 28,949 on Sunday.

Neighbouring Austria is due to become the first European country to begin lifting its lockdown next week.

Its Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, is considering a plan to fully restart the economy at the beginning of May.

"The curve has reached a plateau and begun to descend," said Silvio Brusaferro, head of the Istituto Superiore di Sanita, Italy's top health institute.

"It is a result that we have to achieve day after day. If this is confirmed, we need to start thinking about the second phase and keep down the spread of this disease."

Adding to the evidence suggesting that Italy’s nationwide lockdown has helped to stem the spread of the virus, confirmed cases of the coronavirus rose by 4,316 to 128,948, the lowest increase in five days.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza outlined measures, including more testing and a stronger local health system, intended to allow a gradual easing until the eventual development of a vaccine.

"There are difficult months ahead. Our task is to create the conditions to live with the virus," Mr Speranza told the daily La Repubblica newspaper.

The national lockdown will officially last until at least April 13 but it is widely expected to be extended.

Mr Speranza said it was too early to say when it could be lifted.

He said he had issued a note outlining five principles around which the government planned to manage the second phase of the emergency, when lockdown restrictions begin to be eased but before a full return to normal conditions.

Social-distancing would have to remain, he said, with wider use of protection devices including face masks, while local health systems would be strengthened to allow a faster and more efficient treatment of suspected virus cases.

Testing and contact tracing would be extended, including with the use of smartphone apps and other forms of digital technology, while a network of hospitals dedicated to treating Covid-19 patients would be set up.

The government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also intends to secure tens of thousands of certified blood test kits to see how many people have developed antibodies for the disease.

The nation of 60 million became first the western democracy to voluntarily shut down almost all businesses and ban public gatherings on March 12.

But health officials are desperate for people to remain vigilant.

"Don't lower our guard, stay at home," Angelo Borelli, head of the Civil Protection department, told a daily briefing.

Alongside its public health crisis, the government is also dealing with devastation to the economy caused by the sudden halt to business.

Those with the antibodies might have immunity and be allowed to work, enabling the economy to restart.