By Angelo Amante
ROME (Reuters) - Allies of new Prime Minister Mario Draghi criticised on Monday one of his government's first moves - a decision to unexpectedly extend a shutdown of Italy's ski resorts just hours before the slopes had been due to re-open.
After a months-long closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, Italian ski operators were poised to re-start their ski lifts on Monday, only to see their hopes dashed on Sunday evening when the health ministry said it would maintain the lockdown.
Health experts said the decision was necessary because of the growing spread of the more contagious British variant of the virus. Tour operators and some of the biggest parties in Draghi's new unity government complained that the announcement had come far too late.
"We need to communicate in a timely fashion...Let's change tack," said Matteo Salvini, whose rightist League party has quit opposition ranks to join Draghi's administration, which was only sworn into office on Saturday.
The centre-left Democratic Party (PD) was also unhappy.
"We are not questioning the ongoing health emergency, but they can't just shut things down hours before their reopening," PD Senate leader Andrea Marcucci said in a statement.
Almost all ministers from the previous government have been replaced, but Health Minister Roberto Speranza has remained in place. He informed Draghi before announcing the ski decision, a political source said.
Ski operators were stunned to hear the ban on recreational skiing had been pushed back until March 5 - close to the end of the traditional season.
"The timing of this move is completely absurd. We worked for two weeks, day and night, to guarantee a safe re-opening in line with the regulations," Michele Bertolini, head of the Ponte di Legno Alpine ski resort, told Reuters TV.
Most ski slopes are located in the northern regions, the worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tour operators say they risk losing billions of euros as a result of the shutdown.
"We had bookings, staff, everything ready to restart. Guests who were already here," said Alessandro Guerini, head of the local hoteliers' association in Ponte di Legno.
Although the number of daily COVID-19 cases in Italy has fallen from a high of some 40,000 in mid-November to under 15,000 now, the infection rate is edging higher and several hundred people continue to die each day.
Italy's official death toll stands at 93,577 - the second highest in Europe after Britain and seventh highest worldwide.
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(Additional reporting by Giuseppe Fonte in Rome and Matteo Berlenga in Ponte di Legno; Editing by Crispian Balmer)