Monday 11 May 2020 2:10 pm

'We cannot afford another lockdown': Italy's cautious return to work

Italy was the first European country to be hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and it is now one of the first beginning to ease its draconian lockdown measures to lessen the economic damage of the crisis.

Last Monday the country began cautiously moving out of its tough lockdown with factories, building sites and offices reopening and citizens allowed to leave their houses for exercise.

The government has planned a phased reopening with shops allowed to open from 18 May and restaurants and bars scheduled to re-open fully in June.

Read more: Coronavirus: How is business in Italy coping with the crisis?

The return to work is far from a return to normality, with face masks and social distancing measures mandatory.

Giuseppe Latorre, head of corporate finance for KPMG in Italy, says returning to the office last week under the new conditions was a reminder the crisis was far from over.

“It’s like you wake up after a bad dream and realise it is not a dream,” he says.

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KPMG Italy has completely reviewed the layout of its offices to allow social distancing. And Latorre says the capacity of its Milan base is down to 35-40 per cent on pre-crisis levels. 

Staff face temperature scans at offices

Staff are required to undergo a temperature scan when they enter the building. Masks and gloves are also mandatory – apart from when workers are sitting at their desks.

Read more: Italy to ease lockdown measures as coronavirus infections drop

Common areas are shut, with staff asked to bring food from home. And lifts are limited to two occupants with workers encouraged to use the stairs.

Non-partners need permission from a partner to come into the office to ensure there is enough space for effective social distancing.

KPMG has set up socially distanced meeting rooms with chairs more than two meters apart. All participants are required to wear masks and gloves.

International law firm Dentons has also enacted temperature checks, mandatory masks and gloves. It is examining the possibility of coronavirus testing.

Dentons Italy managing partner Federico Sutti says: “When you see people in the corridor wearing masks it’s like being in a hospital rather than a law firm.” 

Read more: UK lockdown: Online sales soar 109 per cent to record high

Latorre and Sutti say around 10 per cent of staff were back in the office at their firms last week. The rest continuing to work remotely. 

“It is a bit depressing to be here on a floor which normally holds 250 people where there are phones ringing, people queuing for coffee, and now it is empty. You do realise something has changed,” Latorre says.

Italy’s lockdown lift and the risk of a second wave

The strict measures have been implemented for good reason. Italy has suffered more than 30,000 Covid-19 deaths. Lombardy – the region around business and finance hub Milan – accounts for half of these.

A precipitous movement out of lockdown risks a second spike in coronavirus infections and deaths which could lead to a second shutdown.

“The big difficulty we have is uncertainty about whether we will have another peak. This is the main problem,” says Claudia Parzani, western Europe managing partner of law firm Linklaters.

“It is essential that social distancing works, we cannot afford to go back into the nightmare,” Latorre says.

Read more: Germany to reopen shops and restart football in lockdown easing plan

The next few weeks will be crucial for Italy. If social distancing measures are effective, the country can continue on the path of reopening its economy and easing the strict lockdown its populace has lived under for the past two months.

However, if cases do spike, a second lockdown is a possibility for Italy. That could have potentially catastrophic consequences for an already beleaguered economy.

“If something goes wrong we will have the issue of a possible re-lockdown and that would be traumatic for the country. In the next 10 days we will see the direction of travel,” Sutti says.