Italy’s two-month spring lockdown was one of the longest and strictest in Europe – though health experts credited it with getting the outbreak under control, and leaving Italy behind the curve as cases rose again in neighbouring countries.
As France and Germany impose new lockdowns this week, there is widespread speculation that Italy could soon be forced to follow suit.
But with Italy’s national and regional politicians now hesitant to enforce tough measures, the plan for the coming days and weeks remains unclear.
So far, ministers have been taking a softer approach to new restrictions which they hope will be less economically damaging.
The government has gradually tightened measures during October, as it issued a series of three emergency decrees within two weeks.
Under the latest rules announced on Sunday, gyms and cinemas were shut down nationwide and bars and restaurants must close by 6pm.
But the current restrictions have divided Italy, with opposition politicians and business owners saying closures and local curfews are economically punishing but won't make enough difference to the contagion curve.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said the government would not resort to further restrictions before seeing what sort of impact the current rules are having.
However, rising case numbers may force it to bring in further restrictions sooner.
“We are meeting with experts and considering whether to intervene again,” Conte told Il Foglio on Saturday.
Italy reported 31,084 new cases of the virus on Friday, breaking another daily record.
Conte this week announced a further financial aid package worth five billion euros for businesses hit by the latest round of closures, but there are concerns about how the country would afford to support more businesses if they are hit by wider restrictions.
Regional authorities have also been reluctant so far to implement localised lockdowns advised by health experts.
But as the situation in Italy worsens, government health advisors now say some form of lockdown is becoming a real possibility.
“All possible measures are being studied,” the coordinator of the government’s Technical Scientific Committee (CTS) Agostino Miozzo said in an interview on Italian radio on Friday.
“Today we have entered scenario 3, there is also scenario 4,” he said, referring to risk categories outlined in government contingency planning documents.
“With that, various lockdown hypotheses – general, partial, localized, or like we saw in March – are predicted.”
“We had hoped not to arrive here. But if we look at the countries next to us, unfortunately these are realistic hypotheses,” he said.
What could happen next?
A new lockdown could take various forms according to the risk scenarios detailed in the 'Prevention and response to Covid-19' plans drawn up by Italy's Higher Health Institute (ISS).
The situation in Italy currently corresponds to that described in “scenario 3”, which the ISS writes is characterized by “sustained and widespread transmissibility” of the virus with “risks of maintaining the health system in the medium term” and Rt values at a regional level between 1.25 and 1.5.
If Italy's enters “scenario 4” – the last and most serious provided for in the ISS plan – that's when tougher measures such as lockdowns would have to be considered.
In scenario 4 “the regional Rt numbers are predominantly and significantly greater than 1.5” and such a scenario “could quickly lead to a high number of cases and clear signs of overload of welfare services, without the possibility of tracing the origin of new cases.”
If that happens, the official plan provides for “very aggressive measures” to be taken, including a national lockdown like that seen in spring if deemed necessary.
Italian media reports that any new lockdown would differ from the previous one, as Italy appears most likely to adopt “French style” rules this time with Italy, like France, determined to protect the economy.
France entered its second lockdown on Friday, with the country recording around 30,000 new cases a day according to national figures.
In this scenario schools would remain open, as well as some workplaces including factories, farms, and public offices, writes financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, while other businesses would be required to allow remote working wherever possible..
Could Italy avoid this scenario?
For now, authorities are betting on the current measures being enough to start to flatten the contagion curve, and so avoiding the need to implement strict lockdown measures
“The hope is that we can begin to see a slight decline in new positives in a week,” Dr Vincenzo Marinari, physicist at Rome's Sapienza University, told news agency Ansa. “The first results could begin to show in four or five days.”
The coming days “will be crucial with regards to trying to implement the rules decided by the government,” he said.
However, some experts say it is already too late.
The measures enforced under the current emergency decree are “insufficient and late”, stated the president of the Italy's evidence-based medicine foundation Gimbe in a report on Thursday.
“The epidemic is out of control, without immediate local closures it will take a month of national lockdown”, Dr Nino Cartabellotta said.
All eyes will be on the daily infection rate as Conte is expected to announce plans for any new measures by the middle of next week, according to Italian media reports.
On Wednesday November 4th, Conte is due to address parliament on the measures in place to deal with the pandemic and the consequent economic crisis.
Any new measures announced could be voted on immediately and triggered as early as the following weekend.
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