Italy approves stimulus package after COVID-19 cases hit new record

Giuseppe Fonte and Gavin Jones
·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Rome
FILE PHOTO: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Rome

By Giuseppe Fonte and Gavin Jones

ROME (Reuters) - Italy approved a package of measures on Tuesday to support businesses hit by new restrictions aimed at reining in the coronavirus, hours after daily infections hit a new record high and COVID-19-related deaths jumped.

The measures will cost 5.4 billion euros ($6.38 billion) and include grants, tax breaks and additional funds for temporary lay-off schemes, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri said at a news conference.

"The Cabinet has approved a decree which will ensure immediate compensation for the sectors which are in greatest difficulty in this moment," Conte said.

Earlier, the health ministry reported 21,994 new coronavirus infections over the past 24 hours with 221 deaths, the first time Italy registered more than 200 fatalities in a single day since mid-May.

In an effort to curb the resurgent outbreak, Conte on Sunday ordered bars and restaurants to close by 6 p.m. and shut gyms, cinemas and swimming pools, triggering protests against the closures in several cities.

The government has promised there will be no repeat of the delays in the arrival of financial help to businesses which occurred during Italy's first wave of the epidemic in the spring.

Gualtieri said the national tax agency would aim to transfer funds directly into people's bank accounts by mid-November using "a mechanism which is fast, simple and effective."

The latest aid package includes 2.4 billion euros of one-off payments in favour of 460,000 business, tax credits for rents and the scrapping of the IMU housing tax payment due in December, Gualtieri said.

It also provides funds for a further six weeks -- until Jan. 31 -- of furlough schemes which have been in place since mid-March, while the government's 2021 budget will extend them for an additional 12 weeks.

As Conte and Gualteri spoke at the prime minister's office, around 200 far-right demonstrators clashed with police in the nearby Piazza del Popolo, throwing flares and firecrackers in a repeat of the protests seen in other Italian cities this week.

"We understand the suffering and the economic difficulties but the acts of violence cannot be justified, and I think all good Italian citizens cannot justify them," Conte said.

"Violence breeds violence and it doesn't bring any good," he added.

A Treasury official told Reuters the latest stimulus package would not push this year's budget deficit above its current target of 10.5% of gross domestic product, which already included leeway for additional spending.

Gualtieri insisted Italy's public finances remain "solid," adding that "this extra effort does not change the prospect or the strategy for our accounts."

(Reporting by Giuseppe Fonte and Gavin Jones; additional reporting by Crispian Balmer and Antonio Denti; editing by Jonathan Oatis)