Italy’s Reopening Plan Advances in Test for Europe’s Virus Exit

USA World

(Bloomberg) —

Italy’s discussions to gradually lift restrictions to contain the coronavirus are advancing, as Europe’s exit from stringent lockdown measures takes shape.

Amid tense discussions weighing political and economic pressures with public-health concerns, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government is hammering out an approach that foresees the full return to normal life taking months, according to people directly involved in the talks.

In the original epicenter of the outbreak on the continent, schools will likely remain closed until September, with every step to ease restrictions dependent on the spread of the deadly disease remaining under control, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are confidential.

Some companies and shops may resume operations as soon as April 13, and Italians could be allowed to go outside and gradually return to offices as of May 4, the people said.

As the first European country to impose a nationwide lockdown, Italy’s move to ease its restrictions would mark an important step in the region’s battle with the pandemic that started in China and spread across the world.

The continent has been hit hard by the pandemic. Italy, Spain, Germany and France trail only the U.S. in the number of infections, and the region has suffered more than 65% of worldwide deaths.

After Norway became the latest European country to pursue a controlled reopening of the economy, Germany is also weighing initial steps to ease restrictions designed to limit contact between people.

Small stores could be allowed to open beginning on April 20, Armin Laschet — the premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which initially had one of the country’s largest outbreaks — told state broadcaster ZDF on Wednesday.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has urged caution to prevent a rekindling of the epidemic, will meet with leaders of Germany’s 16 states next week to discuss containment measures. The restrictions in Europe’s largest economy, including a ban on gatherings of more than two people, are currently in force until April 19.

Life Changing

Emerging from the lockdown would mark a sea-change in Italian life, with officials considering requiring protective masks inside shops and offices, allowing only a few people in stores at a time and mandating people maintain a distance of at least one meter, the people said.

Also under consideration are measures to protect people most at risk, including older individuals and those with previous illnesses, possibly by slowing their return to work. Italy’s Health Ministry is also pushing for more hospitals dedicated to the virus to avoid contagion risks.

A video conference hosted by Conte on Tuesday included an emergency team of medical and scientific advisers. Government ministers at their offices and homes quizzed the experts, who wore masks and gloves in a basement room of the civil protection agency. Conte’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

For the prime minister, a former academic, it was an opportunity to ensure his government based its strategy on science as new cases and deaths flatten out and the lockdown cripples the economy.

For some experts on the Health Ministry’s scientific and technical committee, the ideal solution would be to keep the lockdown going until a vaccine is found. But they acknowledge the decision on a restart is political and waiting for a vaccine would be impossible.

Only the Beginning

Germany’s latest figures underscore the difficulty in controlling the pandemic. New coronavirus infections in Europe’s third-biggest outbreak rose the most in three days.

More than two weeks after Germany ordered citizens to adhere to strict limits on public life, infections increased by 4,288 on Wednesday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

While the general trend is “positive,” the nation is still only at the beginning of the pandemic, according to the head of Germany’s public health authority.

“We are seeing that we can dampen the growth of the illness, but it’s really only a snapshot,” Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, said on Deutschlandfunk radio.

Still, more countries are gradually lifting rigid controls, with Norway joining Austria and Denmark as the first European countries to ease restrictions.

Norwegian schools, universities and technical colleges will start opening their doors from April 27, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said at a press briefing on Tuesday, adding that changes will be implemented over time in a controlled manner.

Services that require personal contact, such as hairdressers and physical therapists, can be resumed gradually, while restrictions on large sporting and cultural events will remain in place until June 15.

“Norway has managed to gain control of the virus,” Solberg said. “The job now is to keep that control.”

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