Italy joins European moves to cautiously lift Covid-19 lockdown

Business-first approach in Italy as Berlin makes face masks compulsory on public transport

Afternoon shift employees line up to go through security and health procedures at the entrance of the SEVEL (European Light Vehicle Company) plant of the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) - PSA Group car factory on April 27, 2020 in Atessa, south of Pescara, after the government laid out partial reopening plans, during the country's lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 infection, caused by the novel coronavirus. SEVEL is a 50-50 joint venture between FCA and French car manufacturer PSA Group.  / AFP / Vincenzo PINTO
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Italy is to ease its lockdown restrictions from next week, starting with businesses.

The country poses a key test for Europe’s attempts to restart public life and economies immobilised by the coronavirus.

Spain, the country with the most confirmed infections in Europe, also signalled tentative moves to restart its economy after weeks of lockdowns, as did France.

Countries including Germany are starting cautious reopenings. From Monday, masks will be mandatory on public transport in Germany and gatherings of more than 20 people will be banned.

In Switzerland, shops were already back in business on Monday while primary school pupils in Norway returned to school.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned it was too early for the UK to ease off its month-long isolation rules.

In his first public appearance in weeks after contracting Covid-19, Mr Johnson said he could not "throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak".

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said a gradual easing of restrictions would begin on May 4.

Mr Conte said it would be phased to ward off a second wave of infections that would cause more deaths and “irreversible damage” to the economy.

“We all want the country to restart,” he said. “But the only way to live with the virus in this phase is to not fall ill and social distancing. If you love Italy, keep your distance."

On Sunday Italy reported its fewest deaths over 24 hours in six weeks, France counted the fewest in a month while Spain’s death toll increase was the smallest in April.

Building and manufacturing wholesalers will be the first sectors allowed to reopen in Italy.

Retailers and museums will follow two weeks later and bars, restaurants and barbers possibly on June 1, Mr Conte said.

He said schools would not reopen until September.

Italian leaders are trying to save an economy that is headed for an  8 per cent drop this year.

But Mr Conte said that if the nation failed to respect rules including social distancing, the curve of contagion “will rise and could become out of control".

He said family members would be allowed to attend funeral services, but other restrictions on religious rites remained in place.

Mr Conte clashed at the weekend with some members of his government about reopening churches but decided to heed the advice of medical and scientific advisers to keep them shut.

“You can go to a museum but not celebrate a religious rite?” Elena Bonetti, Minister for Equal Opportunity and Family, asked in a tweet.

“This decision is incomprehensible, it will be changed.”

Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is set to unveil his lockdown plan on Tuesday.

Schools are set to be first to reopen, reports say.

With more than 100,000 deaths, Europe has been hit hard by Covid-19 and is bracing for the worst recession in living memory.

The crisis has exposed political rifts, with leaders struggling to approve £469 billion (Dh2.14 trillion/US$582.88bn) of short-term support measures and a longer-term plan.

France and Spain are leading a group calling for Europe’s recovery to be funded by grants from an EU budget, while the Netherlands and Austria are among those insisting the funds to poorer nations should be in the form of loans.

Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s Economic and Financial Affairs Commissioner, called for a €1.5tn (Dh5.97tn/US$1.62tn) recovery fund to be available by mid-September.

It should disburse loans and grants, Mr Gentiloni said.

In Germany, new infections were fewer than 2,000 for a second day on Sunday, although government officials warned against easing restrictions too quickly.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas dampened hopes that European travel destinations would be reopened early.

“A European race to see who will allow tourist travel first will lead to unacceptable risks,” Mr Maas said.

In the UK the death toll topped 20,000 on Saturday, the fifth-highest in the world.

But on Sunday Britain reported a decline in daily deaths to 413, the lowest since March 31.