Anxious Italy looks to play down coronavirus risk as new cases rise


ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s government, desperate to stave off a likely recession, played down on Thursday the gravity of an outbreak of coronavirus, the worst yet seen in Europe, saying it only impacted a tiny fraction of the country.

But even as ministers took to the airwaves with reassuring messages, officials said the death toll had risen by two to 14 overnight, while the number of people confirmed to have contracted the illness rose by more than 100 to 528.

“The epidemic of misleading information will do more damage to Italy than the risk of the virus epidemic itself,” Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told a news conference. “Only 0.1% of the country is involved.”

Analysts have warned that the outbreak looks set to shunt Italy’s fragile economy into its fourth recession in 12 years, with many businesses in the wealthy north close to a standstill and hotels reporting a wave of cancellations.

Even though the outbreak is focused on a small cluster of towns in Lombardy and neighboring Veneto, the local authorities have banned public events across the regions and closed schools, universities, cinemas, theaters and museums.

A growing list of countries around the world have reported cases of coronavirus in the last two days because of contacts with Italy. Israel said on Thursday it was barring entry to non-Israelis who had visited Italy in the past two weeks.

Italy’s Civil Protection Agency said although new cases were rising, they were all linked to the contagion hotspots that came to light last week. The agency also said 278 of those infected had very light or no symptoms while 37 had fully recovered.

In a setback to efforts to present a healthy face to the world, the governor of the region of Lombardy, Attilio Fontana, took to Facebook to announce he had placed himself in quarantine after one of his staff came down with the disease.

“For now I don’t have any type of infection so I can continue to work … but for two weeks I will try to live in a sort of self-isolation,” he said, donning a surgical mask.

The previous day medical experts in Italy had stressed that such masks served no useful function for those not infected.

Italy’s opposition League party has accused Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of mishandling the crisis and called on Thursday for the creation of a government of national unity.

“The important thing is not to sink. With Conte, Italy is sinking. We are willing to row in a lifeboat for the time strictly necessary to return to democratic normality,” League leader Matteo Salvini told reporters.

“This government team is not fit to handle normality, let alone an emergency.”

The government dismissed the attack and vowed to forge ahead to overcome one of the most serious crises Italy has had to deal with for years.

Asked on Thursday if it wasn’t time for a unity government, Conte said: “We already have one. The government is united for the nation.”

Additional reporting by Angelo Amante, Elvira Pollina, Stephen Jewkes and Giselda Vagnoni; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Peter Graff and Alexandra Hudson