EPA/Angelo Carconi

Italy risks ‘unforgivable’ government crisis during pandemic

Italy’s health minister warned Wednesday against “unforgivable” distractions as the country teeters on the brink of a government crisis in the middle of a deadly coronavirus pandemic.

With the ruling coalition looking close to collapse over a row with a junior partner, Roberto Speranza urged colleagues to keep focused on the health crisis has so far left killed almost 80,000 people in Italy.

“Let’s keep political infighting, real or presumed electoral tensions, far and separate from the health of Italians,” he told the lower parliamentary chamber in an update on Covid-19 regulations.

“It would really be an unforgivable mistake to get distracted or to slow down near the finish line.”

Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte’s government is on the verge of imploding following weeks of internal criticism from former premier Matteo Renzi, the leader of the small Italia Viva party.

Renzi has called a press conference at 5:30 pm (1630 GMT) in which he was widely expected to announce the resignation of his two ministers and his party’s withdrawal from the coalition.

Conte has signalled he would react by seeking a vote of confidence in parliament, hoping to secure enough support from opposition lawmakers to fill the gap left by Renzi’s exit.

Without Italia Viva’s 18 senators, Conte would need new friends in the Senate, although his majority is large enough in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. 

Another alternative could be a new Conte government. The premier could resign and seek a quick reappointment from President Sergio Mattarella, with a revamped list of ministers.

The reshuffle would be a way of appeasing Renzi with bigger ministerial posts for Italia Viva, but for this to happen, he and Conte would have to overcome their personal antagonism.

– Toughest months –

Renzi has railed at the government over its handling of the pandemic and plans to spend around 210 billion euros from the EU’s post-coronavirus recovery fund.

A reworked plan for allocating the EU money, partly taking into account Renzi’s complaints, was approved by the cabinet late Tuesday. Italia Viva’s two ministers abstained.

The populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), the main ruling parties, have so far stood by Conte and warned against political instability.

“Frankly, in the midst of a pandemic, a crisis would be truly incomprehensible and dangerous,” Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri, from the PD, warned Tuesday.

Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy, imposed a long lockdown when the pandemic first hit last year and is now suffering its worst recession since World War II. 

Among other things, a government crisis could hamper the looming approval of a new round of public aid, worth several billion euros, for businesses affected by virus closures.

Speranza on Wednesday warned that 12 of Italy’s 20 regions were at risk of tougher restrictions after a worsening of the Covid-19 situation, notably an increase in the number of people in intensive care.

“A new strong storm is brewing across Europe,” he noted, adding German Chancellor Angela Merkel “was right when she said that we are facing the toughest months of the pandemic”.