Europe’s Wary Reopening Begins With Apology by Italian Leader

(Bloomberg) -- Italy’s prime minister apologized for delays in aid payments to jobless workers, underscoring the pitfalls for political leaders who are warily reopening Europe for business.

As governments enter the next phase of dealing with the coronavirus, European policy makers are increasingly focusing on the risk of a second wave of a pandemic blamed for some 235,000 deaths worldwide.

Conte, whose country’s credit rating was cut by Fitch this week to a step above junk, is more challenged than most. On Friday, he apologized on Facebook for holdups in aid to workers and small businesses while facing criticism from industry and political rivals after two months of lockdown.

“We are moving toward the reopening of economic activities through a chaotic succession of uncertain and contradictory measures,” said Carlo Bonomi, designated head of the Confindustria manufacturers’ lobby.

In the U.K., there were 739 new virus-linked deaths reported on Friday, bringing the total to 27,510 a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “we are past the peak of this disease.” Plans being considered by U.K. ministers would keep white-collar employees working from home for several months to avoid overwhelming mass transit, the Financial Times reported.

Target Reached

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the U.K. had met its target of providing more than 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of April as it sought to build capacity to tackle the next stage of the outbreak.

With the U.K. turning to easing a nationwide lockdown in force since March 23, testing and a system of tracking and tracing Covid-19 cases are key tools for preventing a second wave of infections.

“Our goal must be freedom. Freedom from the virus. We will not lift measures until it is safe to do,” Hancock said. “Also we care about the restoration of social and economic freedom. We are impinging on the freedom of all for the safety of all.”

France reported 218 new deaths on Friday, the lowest since March 23. The euro area’s second-biggest economy plans to ease restrictions starting May 11, reopening shops as one of the first steps.

Italy, which has Europe’s highest death toll from the virus, reported 269 new virus-linked fatalities on Friday, the lowest since Sunday and down from a single-day peak of 969 in late March. Those raw numbers are adding to pressure on Conte to restart the economy.

Act of Contrition

Italy will start to gradually ease its lockdown on Monday, with construction and manufacturing the first to resume. Retailers and museums will reopen on May 18 and bars and restaurants in June. Schools are closed until September.

A day after telling parliament that a full reopening would be too risky, Conte appeared contrite about bureaucratic delays in distributing emergency funds. These include one-time 600-euro ($660) payments for unemployed workers and the same amount for families with children under age 12. Further measures are in the pipeline and will be “stronger, faster, more direct,” Conte said.

Germany’s new cases declined slightly, holding at less than 2,000 for the seventh straight day as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition and state governments relax lockdown measures. Even so, a national health agency reported 193 new deaths linked to the virus, the most in eight days.

Germany plans to reopen playgrounds, zoos, museums and churches first, while maintaining travel restrictions and most other curbs on public life.

Ireland will restart the economy on May 18, in the first of five phases that will run through mid-August, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said. Construction and other outdoor workers will be able to return to work in about three weeks, with further openings depending on progress in the fight against the coronavirus.

“The curve has plateaued, but we have not yet won this fight,” Varadkar said in a speech to the nation late Friday. “We have two more weeks of tight restrictions to weaken the virus further and make sure it doesn’t make a comeback when we begin to interact with each other.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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