Covid lockdowns: Third wave sweeps Europe while UK re-opens

4 weeks ago 154

Anarchy spilled out onto the streets of Rome tonight as anger at repeated coronavirus shutdowns across Europe grows amid a third wave of cases sweeping the Continent - while Britain finally reopens.

Hundreds of Italians chanting 'we are all workers' clashed with riot police in a central plaza after they were blocked off from an area outside the premier's office usually authorised for demonstrations.

Some protesters waved Italy's tricolor flag as they begged authorities to open up the country's already fragile economy, which has recorded a monumental 8.9 per cent fall in GDP during the pandemic.

Other demonstrators thought to be associated with the Italian far-Right hurled stones, bottles, smoke bombs and flash bombs at the police lines and let off fireworks which filled the streets with billowing smoke. 

Silvio Bessone, a chef from the northern Piedmont region, said 'the problem is we just don't know what to do', while another - who gave his name to AFP as Maurizio - said his restaurant was near failing. 

The demo in Rome is the latest in a series of anti-lockdown demonstrations across Italy, including a Saturday protest in Naples by shopkeepers and a similar protest by restaurateurs in the capital last week. 

Italy was locked down over the Easter holidays, with all restaurants, bars and cafes ordered shut except for takeout service. The partial easing of Covid-19 restrictions in some parts of Italy did not include the reopening of restaurants, which are expected to remain closed until the end of the month.   

Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who stands at the vanguard in the EU's jabs battle with Britain, has mandated Covid-19 vaccines for all health workers in a move aimed at crushing anti-vax sentiment. The country's jabs roll-out, dented by the EU's failure to secure AstraZeneca doses, is faltering with just 16.03 people per 100 of its population inoculated compared to more than 50 people per 100 in Britain. 

Unlike other European countries, when Italy launched its jabs campaign at the end of December, its army of pensioners were not given automatic precedence, despite the fact they have borne the brunt of the killer disease. The failure to provide swifter protection has cost thousands of lives, experts say. 

As Italians protest the cycle of shutdowns, lockdown-weary Britons today rushed back to the pub for a well-earned drink as England took another leap forward on its roadmap to freedom. For the first time in four months, non-essential shops, gyms and salons were allowed to throw open their doors. 

Restaurant owners clash with riot police in Rome on April 12, 2021 amid concerns that their trade is being hammered

Italian policemen try to stop Momi El Hawi, one of the leaders of 'Io Apro' association during a demonstration in Rome 

An elderly protester wearing a face mask and armed with a red umbrella confronts police wearing riot gear in Rome 

Demonstrators face the Italian Police during a demonstration organized by the 'Io Apro' association with restaurant owners, entrepreneurs and small business owners to protest against the Covid-19 restrictions

Workers raise their hands in the rain in Rome on April 12, 2021 as they are confined in a plaza by Italian riot police 

Demonstrators let off smoke bombs as they protested against the Italian government's prolonged Covid shutdowns

Demonstrators face the Italian Police during a demonstration organized by the 'Io Apro' association with restaurant owners, entrepreneurs and small business owners to protest against the Covid-19 restrictions

Speaking at the demo, Maurizio said: 'To the (Health) Minister Speranza I want to say 'Reduce your salary by 80 percent and let's see how many of these people will make it'. Because I cannot keep my company open like this.'

Silvio Bessone told Reuters: 'The problem is we just don't know what to do. They tell us that we can only do take-aways, but in my neighbourhood with a population of 3,000, what kind of take-aways can I do?'. 

On Thursday, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said he hoped before the end of the month to loosen certain anti-Covid measures, such as the curbs on restaurant dining. But he needed to wait for new health data before deciding.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza meanwhile reiterated the need for 'the utmost caution' as the country reported 9,789 new cases of coronavirus, and as the death toll approaches 115,000.

'In May, depending on the parameters of the contagion and the ability to vaccinate the fragile... there may be conditions for less restrictive measures,' he told La Repubblica daily on Sunday.

In Naples over the weekend, shopkeepers held up lingerie during a protest against Covid shutdowns.

They denounced what they saw as the injustice in the Italian government allowing some shops to remain open - such as those selling underwear, considered an 'essential' item - while ordering others to close.

The Italian government has imposed repeated curbs over the past 14 months to try to contain Covid-19, which has killed more than 114,000 people in Italy - the second worst official tally in Europe after Britain.

While an initial national lockdown in March 2020 was widely accepted, the announcement of renewed restrictions in October faced immediate pushback in several Italian cities.

Those protests faded as infection rates soared, but the decision to prolong curbs into the spring, with no firm date for when they might be eased, has once again raised hackles. 

It comes as Italy's government is preparing a new stimulus package worth around 40 billion euros ($47.60billion) to support its coronavirus-battered economy, a source told Reuters news agency. 

The extra borrowing will probably push this year's budget deficit above 10 per cent of GDP, up from 9.5 per cent in 2020 when the economy shrank by 8.9 per cent as a result of the coronavirus curbs.  

Demonstrators face the Italian Police during a demonstration organized by the 'Io Apro' association in Rome 

Demonstrators in Rome link arms as they protest the Italian government's Covid shutdowns as they clash with riot police 

Protesters are confined in a central plaza in Rome by Italian riot police while demonstrators let off smoke bombs

Restaurant owners clash with riot police in Rome on April 12, 2021 amid concerns that their trade is being hammered

Demonstrators face police in Rome during a demonstration organized by the 'Io Apro' association with restaurant owners, entrepreneurs and small business owners to protest against the Covid-19 restrictions

Demonstrators face the riot police in Rome during a demonstration organized by the 'Io Apro' association

The extra borrowing will fund additional grants to businesses forced to close and extend an existing debt moratorium for small and medium-sized companies, hard hit by the restrictions aimed at curbing the infections.

Rome's last official estimate, made by the previous government in January, envisages a deficit-to-GDP ratio of 8.8 per cent this year. That was premised on an economic growth forecast of 6 per cent, which officials say will have to be revised down to a figure between 4 per cent and 5 per cent.

The new stimulus will also increase Italy's huge public debt, equal to 155.6 per cent at the end of 2020 and proportionally the second highest in the euro zone after Greece.

The last time Italy registered a double-digit deficit was in the early 1990s.

The new deficit and debt targets, along with multi-year GDP growth forecasts, will be issued in the Treasury's Economic and Financial Document, which is expected to be approved this week.

The Italian health ministry said last week that lockdown measures will be eased from today in six regions after new cases fell by 30 per cent over a five-day period on the previous week. 

The national health institute (ISS) said the 'R' reproduction number has declined to 0.92 from 0.98 a week earlier. An 'R' number above 1 indicates that infection numbers will grow at an exponential rate.

Italy operates a four-tier, colour-coded system to calibrate the restrictions in place in its 20 regions.

Much of the industrial north worst-affected by the epidemic has been lowered from the highest-tier red, where people can only leave their homes for work, health reasons or emergencies, to tier-three orange, where restrictions on business and movement are slightly less severe.

This includes Lombardy, around the financial capital Milan, and Piedmont centred on Turin. Central Tuscany also passed from red to orange, while the island of Sardinia was the only region to move from orange to red.

A month ago Sardinia was the only region to be on the lowest-tier white, meaning daily life was almost as normal, underscoring the speed with which infections can accelerate in the absence of curbs.

Overall, there are 16 orange regions and four red ones, with none in the two lower tiers, yellow and white.

The health system remains under acute strain and intensive care unit occupancy is still above the critical threshold, the ISS said, and daily deaths continue to pile up.

Friday saw the tally rise by 718, the largest increase this year, although the health minister said this figure was bloated by late reporting from the island of Sicily which had failed to register 258 deaths from 'previous months.' 

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