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Politicians warn 'distress will turn into violence' in Italy's south as social unrest grows

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Under strain: A medical staffer working at the Santo Spirito hospital in Rome yesterday. Photo: Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP

Under strain: A medical staffer working at the Santo Spirito hospital in Rome yesterday. Photo: Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP

AP

Under strain: A medical staffer working at the Santo Spirito hospital in Rome yesterday. Photo: Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP

Italian politicians have warned of civil unrest in the country's poorer regions as the coronavirus lockdown is set to be extended until at least Easter.

It came as another 812 victims in the country died, taking its overall death toll past 11,500 - by far the most of any country and accounting for more than a third of the global total. However, although the number of people infected passed 101,000, the daily increase of 4,050 was the lowest since March 17.

In Sicily, cases were reported of people refusing to pay for their shopping, insisting they had no money after three weeks of not working. There were standoffs between supermarket staff and shoppers in Palermo and Catania.

Armed police were sent to Palermo's three largest supermarkets as calls went out on social media for a campaign of looting and attacks on police.

It underlined the acute strain Italy is under after its government closed all but essential shops, businesses and industry in a desperate fight against the contagion.

There were fears the virus could spread from the worst-hit north to the more underdeveloped and dysfunctional south of the country.

Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, has announced a €400m food voucher scheme to help struggling families.

"Nobody will be left alone. We need to help those who are struggling the most," he said, pledging that "the government won't look the other way".

Regional politicians said help was needed urgently. Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, warned: "If help from the government arrives in two weeks - and another two weeks is needed to distribute it - then we run a big risk. The distress will turn into violence."

Social unrest was "exploding" across the south and could spread to the north, he said.

In the south, there were fears the economic downturn would be exploited by mafia groups.

With failing businesses desperate for credit, mafia organisations are likely to offer loans at exorbitant rates, or buy legitimate businesses with the proceeds of the drugs trade.

Nino Di Matteo, a former prosecutor in Palermo, said: "The bosses and their accomplices may have already started contacting businesses hit by the crisis. Organised crime could, in a short space of time, take control of numerous legal enterprises. We must not allow that."

Economists believe Italy's economic output could shrink by up to 7pc this year as a result of the lockdown.

Mr Conte warned that unless there was massive aid to help the economic recovery of countries badly hit by the pandemic, nationalism and Euroscepticism would resurge.

"The number of unemployed we'll have after this tsunami will be very high. We must achieve reconstruction before that happens," he said.

Italy was disappointed last week when EU leaders failed to come up with a plan to address the crisis. Northern European countries, including Germany, rejected an appeal by nine EU member states, including Italy and Spain, to allow borrowing through so-called "corona bonds" to help cushion the blow.

Italy's lockdown, supposed to end on April 3, will almost certainly be extended, ministers said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk