Until the last few days, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and members of his government have insisted that a second nationwide lockdown must be avoided at all costs. It would be economically catastrophic, ministers said, and simply couldn’t happen.
The tone has changed somewhat recently. Conte is no longer ruling out a second lockdown and, as the latest reports from the health ministry show that the situation is worsening across the country, many believe the government may be left with no choice.
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Last week, Conte's government introduced a three-tier system of restrictions dividing Italy into red, orange and yellow zones based on local health data in an attempt to avoid new nationwide measures.
But there’s a widespread expectation that the whole country will be declared a red zone before long.
Back in March, the government briefly declared red zones in hard-hit parts of northern Italy, before locking down the entire country just days later.
And the government is under mounting pressure to take tougher action.
Doctors and health experts continue to push for complete lockdown,as they say the situation is ”out of control” and many hospitals are now struggling to cope.
The government's health data shows that the infection rate is higher than expected and “we are approaching critical thresholds in relation to healthcare capacity,” according the president of the Higher Institute of Health, Silvio Brusaferro, speaking at a press conference on Monday.
So what is the strategy for getting things back under control?
Until now, ministers haven't made this clear – and the void was quickly filled by speculation.
There have been conflicting reports in Italian media this week, with some saying the government is planning to decide by November 15th whether or not to declare the whole country a red zone. Other reports cite unnamed government sources insisting this possibility isn’t even being considered.
The prime minister himself isn’t giving much away.
“I'm working to avoid a total lockdown,” Conte said in an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa on Wednesday.
“The (contagion) curve is climbing but I expect it to start to go down over the next few days, in part due to the effect of the new measures.”
In recent days, the number of new cases being reported does appear to have slowed slightly.
“We can see a very small reduction in the increase in positive cases, but we must wait for a stabilization, because the decrease may also be due to the fact that the testing system has changed in some regions,” explained Dr Nino Cartabellotta, head of Italy’s evidence-based medicine foundation, Gimbe.
As Italy's health experts have repeatedly reminded us since the start of the pandemic, it takes around two weeks to see any impact of new restrictions.
Even if the picture improves as hoped and total lockdown is avoided, it’s still unclear what the government’s longer-term plan actually is for dealing with the second wave – other than repeatedly easing and tightening restrictions region by region in response to rising and falling numbers.
In March, Italy took clear and decisive steps to control the outbreak. It was the first western country to enforce a lockdown, seen as a bold and risky move at the time.
The strict lockdown, though economically devastating, had broad support among the population.
This time, things are very different. Not only are people tired of living under restrictions, but there is frustration and confusion over the complicated new system of regional measures – which has already changed once since being enforced less than a week ago, and now looks set to change again, although it's not clear exactly when.
There has been widespread anger about the perceived unfairness of the new system of local rules, and many accuse the government of not being transparent enough about how regional restrictions are decided.
There’s no doubt that it’s complicated, with new case numbers and hospital capacity just two of the 21 criteria taken into consideration.
The country now seems to be relying heavily on this controversial system of local restrictions.
In summer, as cases started to rise again, officials said widespread testing was key to keeping outbreaks under control.
But now it appears that Italy’s trailblazing rapid tests, since adopted by the UK and others, just weren’t enough to stop the second wave. Italy’s once-adequate tracing system is reportedly struggling.
Italy’s health ministry told AFP on Wednesday that there’s no strategy in place when it comes to testing, other than continuing to increase capacity.
Nor does the Italian government appear to have a concrete plan for rolling out vaccinations if and when they become available, unlike in some neighbouring countries such as Germany.
Meanwhile, people in Italy face an uncertain future. Health, businesses and plans hang in the balance, and many are becoming impatient as ministers tweak a rule here and change a colour there under almost-weekly emergency decrees.
While the government insists it has a strategy, the public is yet to see what it is.
Some of Italy’s top health experts aren’t convinced, either.
“We don’t have a plan to get out of this,” Andrea Crisanti, a University of Padua microbiologist told Italian TV news channel Sky TG24 on Wednesday. “We just have hope.”