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Italian Leader Takes to Basement to Plot How to Fight Virus

John Follain

(Bloomberg) -- Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was working furiously on ways to contain Europe’s worst coronavirus epidemic when he learned that the political establishment itself had been infected.

Democratic Party leader Nicola Zingaretti’s positive reading for the virus emerged Saturday afternoon, sending government ministers scrambling for their own tests, according to two officials who asked not to be named. Conte’s cabinet were given the all clear though at least three other politicians found out they had it, including the head of the northern region of Piedmont.

It sent a chill across the upper echelons of an already fragile government that was looking increasingly amateurish in what has spiraled into an unprecedented crisis on multiple fronts. Conte now is spending his days, and much of his nights, with aides at his Chigi residence or across the River Tiber in a basement operations room of the Civil Protection agency.

His team are at least trying to respect the health measures they themselves decreed -- they greet each other by touching elbows rather than shaking hands, one official said. Meetings at the Civil Protection agency have one empty seat between participants to ensure they keep a safe distance.

The headlines that Zingaretti had contracted the virus brought home to Italians how hollow reassurances from people in power were and it forced Conte to switch gears. Zingaretti had been filmed shaking hands with his colleagues and urging Italians to carry on with life as normal. Now the death toll was fast climbing to almost 500 and Italy’s large elderly population was particularly exposed.

The time had come to get serious about creating a red zone in Lombardy, the epicenter of the crisis. On Monday night, Conte extended those restrictions to the rest of the country.

“We need to change our habits and we need to do it now,” Conte said at a press conference in Rome.

Read more: Italy Goes Into a Nationwide Lockdown As Virus Numbers Spiral

Conte had spent the weekend huddled with his advisers at the Palazzo Chigi in the heart of historic Rome drafting plans to control the spiraling number of cases.

But the first draft of his plans was leaked to the media within hours of him sharing it with regional leaders, sowing panic in the industrial north where the outbreak is concentrated. People jumped on trains to flee Milan for the south before travel restrictions kicked in. Some regional chiefs said the measures didn’t go far enough and ordered quarantine for anyone arriving from the virus-hit areas.

Conte wound up staging a news conference after 2 a.m. Sunday morning as he tried to clear up the confusion. He warned Italians not to be try and be clever and find a way to cheat the rules. He urged them to dig deep and find a sense of civil duty to protect “our health, that of our parents, and most of all our grandparents,” a bedrock of the Italian family.

Unlikely Leader

It was, to say the least, a most unusual way to try and enforce a decree that asked Italians to self-isolate. The hours that followed showed if anything how ineffective his appeal was: a lockdown in name only. Told to stand a meter apart from each other in bars, churches and shops, Italians a day later were still huddling in cafes for their morning coffees.

The atmosphere however is growing febrile. Beyond the stockpiling on hand sanitizers and toilet paper, by Monday morning there were reports of prison riots erupting over Italy’s attempt to impose its rule of law.

Conte, 55, perhaps never imagined he would have to deal with a national emergency of this magnitude. Picked from obscurity to lead a populist coalition in 2018, the Florence lawyer find himself ill-equipped to deal with the biggest coronavirus outbreak outside of China. He was selected as a compromise figure during Italy’s tortuous political machinations, so he doesn’t have the benefit of being a leader of a party and therefore controlling lawmakers directly.

With more than 9,000 confirmed cases, Italy is staring down the barrel of recession, and its health care system is starting to buckle. Conte has got the European Union to turn a blind eye to a stimulus package of 7.5 billion euros ($8.4 billion), which given the size of the crisis appears to be little more than a fiscal drop in the ocean.

Markets also have not given him a vote of confidence.

Italian equities had their worst sell-off since 2016, losing 11% Monday. That put the shares into a bear market, having dropped 27% since their February high. The yield on 10-year government bonds jumped 31 basis points to 1.380%, the biggest increase since 2018.

That’s a sign of the challenge Conte faces to get the situation under control.

“We have two objectives: contain the spread of the virus and power up health services so they can take the strain,” Conte said in an interview with newspaper La Repubblica published Monday, in which he disclosed that he had tested negative.

One concern is just keeping his administration functioning.

Darkest Hour

Officials have been combing through Zingaretti’s agenda since his infection was confirmed to establish with whom he’d been in contact. Finance Minister Roberto Gualtieri, a Democratic Party colleague, sat next to Zingaretti at a March 2 meeting at the group’s headquarters, meaning there’s another week before he can be given the all clear. A Treasury spokesman declined to comment on a newspaper report that Gualtieri had tested negative for the virus over the weekend.

In the meantime, criticism of Conte is gathering momentum. Ex-premier Matteo Renzi, who leads a minor party in the governing bloc, is demanding he extend the restrictions across the rest of Italy, regardless of the economic impact. Regional authorities have also attacked the central government, especially those governed by the main opposition party, the League. Conte meets opposition leaders Tuesday at noon.

The premier’s advisers see no guarantee that the latest measures will turn the tide of infections and are braced for the situation to get worse, one official said, observing wryly that it’s easier to impose restrictions in an authoritarian country like China than with Italy’s devolved democratic system.

Adding to the sense of chaos, six people died following rioting at jails across Italy when inmates demanded they be released because of fears they would become infected while in custody.

As he tries to plot a course forward from his basement, Conte’s thoughts have turned to Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill, who directed World War II from a secret network of underground bunkers in London.

“This is our darkest hour,” he told La Repubblica, channeling Churchill. “But we’ll get through.”

(Updates with Conte comment in seventh paragraph)

--With assistance from Daniele Lepido.

To contact the reporter on this story: John Follain in Rome at jfollain2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Flavia Krause-Jackson

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