Italy eyes first steps out of lockdown as daily death toll drops

As the official number of new coronavirus infections continues to slow, Italy is still debating cautious steps out of a lockdown that has left an estimated half of the working population seeking government support.

Italy eyes first steps out of lockdown as daily death toll drops
People watch a concert from their windoes in the San Basilio suburbs of Rome on Saturday. Photo: AFP

Italy's official daily death toll from the novel coronavirus edged down to 433 on Sunday, the lowest figure in one week.

The total number of deaths reported by the civil protection services since the start of Italy's health crisis in February now stands at 23,660 — second only to the United States.

Sunday's fatalities figure was the second lowest in one month.

The 3,047 new virus infections represented a rise of just 1.7 percent.

The new infections rate is being watched close by Italian government as it deliberates on how to exit a lockdown imposed over the first half of March.

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

The current restrictions are due to be lifted on May 4, and the government is trying to determine which businesses to allow to resume operations, and whether to let people out of their homes.

Some of Italy's top scientific experts have said “phase two” of the lckdown, in which Italians will need to “coexist” with the virus, can't begin until the daily increase in cases slows below one percent.

Rumours and speculation are flying about when people will finally be allowed to walk the streets freely for the first time since early March.

The balmy weather over the past week or so has not been helping government efforts to keep everyone inside.

The number of daily fines for illegal outdoor activity is rising and police are setting up barricades along roads leading to the beaches on the western outskirts of Rome.

The growing sense that weeks of confinement were ending forced an unnamed source in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's office to tell media that “nothing will change”.

But some officials seem to think that extending the strictest lockdown measures beyond their May 3 deadline might simply not work.

The daily death rate has fallen to half of what it was at the peak of the crisis and people — feeling less frightened but more stir crazy — may simply start going out.

“We must give citizens greater freedom of movement,” Deputy Health Minister Pierpaolo Sileri said on Saturday.

A woman wearing a face mask at her window in Rome. Photo: Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Conte gave little of the game away in one of his characteristic late-night Facebook posts on Saturday.

He said some activities will be allowed to resume “according to a well-structured programme that balances the need to protect people's health with the need to resume production”.

Conte is expected to hear on Monday the conclusions of a re-opening taskforce headed by former Vodafone chief executive Vittorio Colao.

'Redesigning our days'

The pressure on Conte from the leaders of Italy's northern industrial heartland is also growing intense. The heads of Milan's Lombardy and Venice's Veneto regions have both warned that they might soon have to begin reopening businesses on their own.

“We either close everything and die waiting for the virus to go away, or we reopen and live,” Veneto governor Luca Zaia said Thursday.

This picture taken on April 16, 2020, shows a deserted Piazza Navona in Rome during the lockdown of the country to curb the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic caused by the new coronavirus. Photo: Tiziana FABI / AFP

The La Repubblica daily estimated on Sunday that 11.5 million Italians — exactly half of the official workforce — have stopped receiving incomes and started applying for aid.

The Confindustria employers' federation said 97.2 percent of companies have reported losses from the shutdown — and 47.3 percent “very serious” ones.

La Repubblica added that most of the funds approved by Conte in a  25-billion-euro ($27-billion) package have already been spent.

The economic emergency and resurgence of political attacks from Italy's far-right have led Conte to start sounding increasingly defensive in the past week.

He told Italy's Il Giornale newspaper on Sunday that “many complement us abroad” about how Italy responded to its greatest disaster since World War II.

READ ALSO: When will it be possible to travel to Italy again? 

“This government is determined and strong,” Conte said. Much of the Western world is now debating how it can end weeks of confinement without setting off a second pandemic wave.

Italy's dilemma is more profound because it was already in very deep debt. Another lockdown caused by a new spike in infections poses a graver danger  than in most other European states.

Italy also shut down a much bigger proportion of its businesses than countries such as Germany or the United States.

Public health institute director Silvio Brusaferro said Italians will have to eventually find a cautious way out.

“Living with the virus means re-designing our days,” he told the Corriere della Sera daily. “Everyone has to give up something.”

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Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”