ROME (Reuters) - The Italian government said on Monday it would give the regions the power to roll back restrictions introduced to halt the new coronavirus in a move that is likely to see most remaining curbs lifted next week.
Italy was the first European country to impose a nationwide lockdown in March and although it has relaxed some of the regulations, many regions had chafed at the slow return to normality and demanded greater control over the process.
Under current guidelines laid out by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti, most shops are due to reopen on Monday, but bars, restaurants and hairdressers were supposed to remain shuttered until at least June 1.
At a meeting between ministers and local government leaders on Monday, the coalition agreed, however, that Italy's 20 regions could set their own pace, defusing a growing source of strife among political parties.
"We have always said that if the contagion data were encouraging, we would have brought forward the reopening," said Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.
"The regions will (shortly) receive guidelines to open bars, restaurants, hairdressers and beauty clinics from May 18," he added on Twitter.
Almost 31,000 Italians have died of COVID-19 since the outbreak came to light on Feb. 21, the third-highest death toll in the world after that of the United States and the UK.
But the outbreak is losing steam, and Italy on Monday, egistered just 744 new cases - the lowest daily increase since March 4.
The contagion has hit some regions especially hard, such as the northern region of Lombardy, which has accounted for almost half of all deaths, while other regions have escaped largely unscathed.
That disparity has called into question the government's one-size-fits-all approach to easing restrictions and regional governors welcomed Monday's change of heart.
"Prime Minister Conte has accepted our request for autonomy," said Giovanni Toti, the centre-right leader of the north-western region of Liguria. "Moving forward using common sense, we will all start again together," he said.
The ruling coalition last week turned to the law courts to stop the southern region of Calabria from reopening outdoor bars and restaurants in the toe of Italy, arguing it was premature.
The pushback against curbs came from areas run by centre-right parties, which are in opposition in Rome, but control a majority of the local regions. Centre-left regions interceded and persuaded the government to decentralise decision-making.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante; Editing by Peter Cooney)