Lombardy region’s governor pushes for Italian businesses to reopen

Lombardy, at the centre of Italy's coronavirus outbreak, has the strictest quarantine rules in the country. But now the head of the wealthy northern region is campaigning for the whole of Italy to reopen for business.

Lombardy region's governor pushes for Italian businesses to reopen
The deserted Via Santo Spirito, part of Milan's luxury shopping district, on April 9, Photo: AFP

Attilo Fontana, the governor of  Lombardy and a prominent member of the right-wing populist League party, sparked controversy on Thursday when he outlined his region's “road to freedom” in a Facbeook post.

The wealthy Lombardy region accounts for over a fifth of Italy's economic activity and Milan is home to the Italian headquarters of numerous global firms.

READ ALSO: Why the coronavirus quarantine rules aren't always the same around Italy

But this one region, at the epicentre of the outbreak in Italy, has also seen almost 60 percent of Italy's COVID-19 deaths, or over 11,000 of the total, which rose above 21,500 on Wednesday.

Italy's official toll – which is believed to be substantially underreported – was the world's highest until being overtaken by the United States last weekend.

Lombardy was the first region to cordon off “red zones” as the infection spread, and the first to implement a regional lockdown in early March.

It currently has stricter quarantine rules in place than any other Italian region – with fines of up to 5,000 euros for transgressions (the maximum fine in most of Italy is 3,000 euros).

After Lombardy and other parts of northern Italy went into lockdown, Italy rolled out strict national quarantine measures on March 10.

The restrictions seem to be working so far to contain the outbreak, but have had a severe impact on the country's already struggling economy.

The International Monetary Fund expects Italy's total output to shrink by 9.1 percent this year – the worst peacetime decline in nearly a century.

Millions of Italians are either furloughed or suddenly unemployed, and a growing number of people in Italy haven't got enough money for food and basic necessities.

READ ALSO: Fears in Italy shift to growing number who can't afford to eat under lockdown

In his Facebook post, Fontana insisted all businesses should reopen when the current nationwide lockdown expires on May 4, following basic social distancing rules.

”Many other European countries are already beginning to reopen. We need to start thinking about our own future immediately,” he said.

Some European nations, such as Denmark, Finland, andLithuania, are now cautiously eyeing ends to their own shutdowns.

Attilo Fontana, the regional governor of  Lombardy. Photo: AFP

However most bigger European countries, including neighbouring France where the situation is more similar to that in Italy, are extending their closures for at least a few more weeks.

Italian government officials still follow the advice of doctors who think it is best to keep the nation locked down until new infections sharply drop off.

READ ALSO: When will Italy's lockdown 'phase two' begin and what will it involve?

Italy's Deputy Industry Minister Stefano Buffagni called Fontana's message “an error”.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who continues to urge caution, has been widely applauded for his handing of what is widely viewed as Italy's worst crisis since World War II.

His government last week chose to extend the lockdown until at least May 3rd on the advice of its panel of scientific experts, despite pressure from those who want to restart economic activity this month.

It also allowed a short list of businesses to start reopening across the country from Tuesday April 14th.

READ ALSO: Here are the businesses that can start reopening in Italy

However, the Lombardy regional administration, led by Fontana, immediately stated that it would not be allowing these businesses to reopen yet.

Lombardy would remain in full lockdown and economic hibernation until May 3rd with no gradual reopening before that date, the region's Welfare Minister Giulio Gallera announced on Saturday.

Fontana came under heavy criticism following his Facbeook post on Thursday, with many saying he seemed to have changed his stance on the issue.

Milan's mayor, Beppe Sala accused Fontana of shifting his position from recently being alarmed about the virus, to now ordering “everyone outside”.

“A little more restraint would not be too much to ask for,” Sala told La Repubblica newspaper.

“I am not against an economic recovery, because it affects the work of so many people,” the Milan mayor said. “But we must provide adequate guarantees first to those who go to work.”

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Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.