British tourists should not be afraid of coming to Italy, the country's foreign minister said yesterday, despite fears that a second wave of Covid-19 infections is beginning in western Europe.
"Italy has lived through one of the most difficult moments of its history," Luigi Di Maio told The Times. "But thanks to our doctors and experts and the great sense of responsibility shown by all our citizens during the lockdown, Italy is up and running again."
Mr Di Maio, 34, an influential member of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, has served as foreign minister in an uneasy alliance with the centre-left Democratic Party since September last year. "Britons who decide to spend their holiday in Italy will find not just the beautiful country that we all know but the enthusiasm and energy of a people who are getting going again after living through a dramatic period," Mr Di Maio said.
Italy was the first country in Europe to be engulfed by the coronavirus pandemic. Some of its hospitals in the wealthy north were overwhelmed by patients. Coffins were transported in convoys of army lorries from Bergamo, one of the hardest hit cities, northeast of Milan, after local funeral services were swamped.
Disciplined adherence to a strict lockdown and respect for rules on face coverings and social distancing have brought down the infection rate, with recent new cases usually under 300 and deaths often in single figures.
"British citizens visiting Italy will find a safe country because the epidemiological situation is under control," Mr Di Maio said. The country had quadrupled the number of intensive care beds available in hospitals, he said.
Tourists could use normal transport and would be required to respect rules on masks and social distancing, in force under a state of emergency extended until October. They were also likely to have their temperature read, often on arriving at a hotel or at the beach.
"All measures are in place, not to guarantee safe corridors but a safe country," Mr Di Maio said. In the south, however, the arrival of more than 6,000 migrants in small boats from north Africa over the past month has swamped reception facilities.
Mass breakouts from quarantine centres have alarmed the local people and threatened to deter holidaymakers.
Four migrants recently tested positive to Covid-19 in Lampedusa's overcrowded reception facility and at least 99 refugees have been found to be positive among those who arrived over the past month. A migrant centre in the town of Treviso, north of Venice, has reported 133 positive cases among 293 residents.
The Maltese authorities on Tuesday found about two thirds of a group of 94 migrants tested positive for the virus. Mr Di Maio said that Italy was cooperating with the government of Tunisia, the point of origin for many recent arrivals, to try to stem the flow.
Luciana Lamorgese, the Italian interior minister, visited Tunis on Monday and agreed to strengthen the repatriation mechanism between the two countries.
"There will be twice-weekly flights to repatriate Tunisians," Mr Di Maio said. "We will explain to people coming to Italy from Tunisia that not only is Tunisia a safe country but it is a country with which we have a repatriation agreement.
"Whoever arrives from there in Italy does not have grounds to obtain a residency permit."
Mr Di Maio said that Italy was also urging Brussels to reactivate an EU migrant redistribution system that was halted by the pandemic. This would help Italy with its repatriation efforts, and provide economic aid to Tunisia. "We have to face the fact that the maritime frontiers of Italy are the maritime frontiers of the European Union," he said.
The situation in Libya, a country racked by civil war and another jumping-off point for Mediterranean migrants, was even more complex, Mr Di Maio acknowledged.
Italy's co-operation with the Libyan coastguard in blocking migrant boats and returning their passengers to atrocious conditions in refugee camps has been a source of tension between Five Star and its Democratic Party allies. The Democrats were accusing the government of complicity in human rights abuses.
"In a country at war there is naturally an issue of human rights," Mr Di Maio said. "But everything we do is to help the Libyan people, to provide the minimum conditions for the respect of human rights."
The minister said that about 800,000 migrants were sheltering in Libya and the Italian government was working with United Nations agencies to encourage their voluntary repatriation. About 80,000 people between Libya and Niger had accepted the offer of assistance, he said.
"We help people who reached Libya thinking they had found Eldorado to return home with some financial support, which we are funding," he said.
Mr Di Maio rejected suggestions that Italy had been ineffectual in its dealings with its former north African colony. "It's not just a Mediterranean problem," Mr Di Maio said. "It concerns a country where the conflict risks an international escalation, as well as representing a serious threat of terrorism for the European continent."