Italy to unveil lockdown relief package as protests continue

Angela Giuffrida in Rome and Sam Jones in Madrid
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Simona Granati - Corbis/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Simona Granati - Corbis/Getty Images

The Italian government is preparing to unveil a funding package for businesses penalised by the latest coronavirus restrictions as it scrambles to quell growing unrest.

The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, is under pressure to act quickly after hundreds of people protested in towns and cities across the country on Monday night against measures that include the 6pm closure of bars and restaurants and the complete closure of gyms, swimming pools, cinemas and theatres.

Violence at demonstrations in the northern cities of Milan and Turin, where there were clashes with police and shops were ransacked, has been blamed on extremist groups. Events in 30 other locations, including Treviso, Verona, Rome, Naples, Salerno, Bari and Palermo, were mostly peaceful. Business owners held another demonstration outside parliament on Tuesday and more are planned in the coming days.

Graph

In Spain, the government’s decision to declare a state of emergency and impose a nationwide curfew brought hundreds of protesters out on to the streets of central Barcelona. Many of the demonstrators were calling for greater investment in public services as the country endures the second wave of the pandemic. Some carried signs reading: “More healthcare, fewer soldiers” and “Cutting back healthcare kills”.

Although the Barcelona protest, organised by a handful of political groups including the far-left Popular Unity Candidacy party, was called off more than an hour before the 10pm-6am curfew began, some demonstrators remained on the streets, clashed with police and set fire to rubbish bins.

Italy’s supreme defence council, chaired by the president, Sergio Mattarella, was summoned on Tuesday to discuss the deployment of military staff to contain rioting and carry out coronavirus swab tests.

Conte is also facing pressure from members of his ruling coalition and opposition parties to ease the restrictions, even as scientists warn they might not be enough to combat escalating coronavirus infections.

The relief package, expected to be approved later on Tuesday, is worth around €5bn (£4.5bn) and will support all businesses and workers affected by the month-long measures.

Conte reportedly told sector representatives, whose businesses were already reeling from the effects of the strict two-month lockdown during the first wave of the pandemic, that the resources would be dispatched “in record time”.

But scepticism is high after it took months for companies to receive funding promised to them during the spring lockdown due to Italy’s slow and obstructive bureaucratic system. Many workers are still waiting for payments owed as part of a furlough scheme.

default

“The move is clearly panic-driven and the money is limited,” said Wolfango Piccoli, the co-president of the London-based research company Teneo Holdings. “But the real challenge in Italy is always implementation – the public knows that there is a big difference between a declaration and actually getting the money in your pocket.”

Italians had mostly supported the government’s handling of the pandemic until the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse, with the daily coronavirus infection tally increasing more than fivefold within the last month.

Conte is striving to regain control over the infection curve in order to stop hospitals becoming overwhelmed while at the same time avoiding another generalised lockdown. But the latest restrictions, which came on top of 11pm-5am curfews in the regions of Lombardy, Piedmont, Lazio and Campania, have backfired.

“This time it’s different,” said Francesco Giavazzi, an economics professor at Milan’s Bocconi University. “In March people were surprised [by the pandemic] and didn’t blame anyone. Now they say the government knew there would be a second wave but didn’t do enough to prepare, there is much more anger. The first time around they survived on their savings, now those savings are gone.”

Piccoli said the feeling of fear that prevailed during the first wave has turned into rage. “It could be rage over the measures, or because you didn’t get the financial support already promised to you, or because a family member died … what’s interesting is that it’s not just in [poorer] southern Italy, but nationwide.”

Spain remains the western European country hardest hit by the pandemic, and last week became the first to register more than one million infections.

On Tuesday morning, the country’s Socialist-led coalition government announced details of its 2021 budget, which include raising taxes on high earners and large companies, and increased public investment.

The prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said the budget had three aims: “to rebuild what we have lost because of the health, economic and social crisis inflicted by Covid-19”; to modernise Spain’s economy, and to strengthen the country’s healthcare, pension and minimum basic income systems.

The prime minister insisted there would be no return to the austerity that followed the 2008 economic crash.

“After the brutal blow of the pandemic, we could withdraw back into austerity and cuts or we could get back on our feet and stride forwards,” said Sánchez. “This budget chooses the second path.”

But the country’s government faced embarrassment on Tuesday after several leading politicians – including the health minister and the leader of the conservative People’s party – attended a newspaper awards ceremony a day after the declaration of a state of emergency and the imposition of a nationwide curfew.

The event, held by the online newspaper El Español in Madrid on Monday night, was also attended by the president of the Madrid region and the leader of the centre-right Citizens party.

It came 24 hours after Sánchez announced a state of emergency and urged Spaniards to limit their movements: “The more we stay at home and the fewer the contacts we have, the more protected we’ll be, and the more we’ll be able to protect our loved ones and the health of everyone.”

In a statement, El Español said that face masks had been worn, and physical distancing maintained, but some accused the guests of double standards.

Gabriel Rufián, an MP for the Republican Left of Catalonia party, tweeted pictures of the event with the caption: “Those kids and their drinking parties are just awful, eh?”