Italian prime minister apologises over long welfare delays


Rome (Reuters) – Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte apologised on Friday to millions of struggling Italians who have yet to receive long-promised financial aid meant to help them get through the coronavirus crisis.

Italy has introduced some of the world’s toughest lockdown measures in an effort to halt the epidemic, which has killed almost 28,000 people in the country so far. It has shuttered businesses around the country and leaving many people without any regular income.

The government has launched various schemes aimed at supporting struggling families and companies, but weeks after some measures were unveiled the funds have yet to arrive in people’s bank accounts.

“There have been, and still are, some delays in the sums being disbursed,” Conte wrote on Facebook, acknowledging that funding mechanisms were proving “complicated”.

“I apologise on behalf of the government and I assure you that we will continue to press for payments and funding to be completed as soon as possible,” he added.

One of the biggest problems has emerged with a 3.3 billion euro ($3.6 billion) fund earmarked for employees furloughed by small companies after the lockdown came into force in March.

The government predicted 2.3 million people would sign up for it and said it would pay out on all claims by the end of April. However, Reuters reported on Wednesday that as of April 27, just 29,000 workers had received cash.

Furloughed workers at medium-sized and large firms are covered by a separate programme for temporary layoffs. Some 7.7 million employees have been placed on the scheme and while only 2.7 million had received payouts by mid-week, the government said the rest of the money was in the pipeline.

Officials said excessive bureaucracy was partly to blame for the problems, but they also noted that some regions had proved much more efficient at processing claims than others.

Authorities are due to start rolling back the coronavirus restrictions from Monday, with factories and production lines reopening. Conte said this would enable four million people to go back to work and start reviving the stalled economy.

However, political opponents and business leaders have said the rollback is too timid. Shops are expected to reopen only after May 18 and bars, restaurants and hairdressers are due to remain shuttered until June.

Conte said strict safety protocols were needed to prevent a resurgence of the virus, but added he was listening carefully to what ordinary Italians were telling him.

“I will not pretend that I have not heard your advice, your pressure, your anger, your anguish. They do not fall into a void,” he said.

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