Italian PM Conte wins backing to extend COVID-19 emergency period

ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s upper house of parliament approved on Tuesday a request by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to extend until Oct. 15 a state of emergency, expanding his government’s powers as it tackles the coronavirus health crisis.

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Opposition parties had objected, accusing Conte of trying to keep too much power in his own hands despite a dramatic fall in the rate of contagion. However, the upper house Senate passed the measure by 157 votes to 125 in the 319-seat chamber.

Conte announced a six-month state of emergency on Jan. 31, when the first two cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Rome.

“The virus continues to evolve and has not run its course. It would be incongruous to abruptly suspend such an effective measure,” Conte he told the Senate in Tuesday’s debate.

However, he drew back from initial plans to seek an extension until the end of the year, saying he only wanted a renewal until mid-October.

The state of emergency gives greater powers to both regional and central government, including making it easier for ministers to declare red zones should the disease flare up again, and to bolster hospital resources.

It will also cut bureaucracy as officials prepare schools to reopen in September after being shut for six months.

Italy has been one of the worst-affected countries in Europe, registering more than 35,000 deaths from around 246,500 cases. However, new infections have fallen sharply over the past three months and Conte’s critics said he needed to involve parliament in key decisions.

“I’m shocked. Conte is arguing in the Senate that without a state of emergency the government is unable to make normal decrees, bills, ordinances. This is a gross lie and a very dangerous assault on liberty,” tweeted Giorgia Meloni, head of the far-right Brothers of Italy party.

The lower house, where the coalition has a much larger majority, will vote on the measure on Wednesday.

Reporting by Crispian Balmer and Giuseppe Fonte; Editing by Kevin Liffey