At a press conference on 9 March, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that there was “no more time” to waste as the coronavirus pandemic spread across Italy, effectively imposing Europe’s first national lockdown. Since then, we at Redfield and Wilton Strategies have continued to monitor public opinion in Italy through four polls conducted across a two-month period (16 March, 22 March, 3 May, 22 May).
We found that just a week after Prime Minister Conte’s national lockdown announcement, a vast majority (55%) of respondents believed that the government was right in deciding to implement a nationwide quarantine.
This support for the Italian government has remained consistent in the following months, with 55% of respondents stating that the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak had been adequate in mid-March and 56% saying the same towards the end of May.
At the start of the pandemic, Prime Minister Conte benefited a momentary increase in popular support in times of crisis. While respondents largely approve of his handling of the pandemic, PM Conte’s approval rating has declined by 22 points, from a staggering 76% in mid-March to 54% by the end of May. However, this still constitutes the approval of the majority of respondents. Conte’s approval ratings notably contrast with that of his European counterparts: 49% of French voters, for instance, disapproved of President Macron’s handling of the crisis in May.
The decline in Conte’s popularity may be explained by mounting fears over the country’s economic situation as lockdown measures are progressively being eased. Indeed, between March and May, the primary concern of respondents shifted from fears about the impact of the coronavirus on public health in late March (72%) to fears about the virus’ impact on the economy by the end of May (51%).
However, concerns over Italy’s economic health were already visible in March when 47% of respondents said that they were very worried about the effect of the pandemic on the nation’s economy and believed there would be a recession, and another 26% expected worse.
This was particularly true among those living in southern Italy with 51% of them expressing their concerns about the effect of the pandemic on the Italian economy. Whilst the “Mezzogiorno” regions have experienced fewer Covid-19 cases, the crisis will most likely further deepen the historical economic divide between northern and southern Italy.
It might therefore be assumed that those living in southern Italy would be more eager to reopen the economy. However, in May, we found that 56% of respondents from southern Italy held that the pace at which the government was easing the lockdown measures was right. By contrast, about a third (34%) of those living in the North-East believed that the pace was too slow.
Likewise, in May, 67% of respondents from the islands Sicily and Sardinia stated that they would not feel comfortable going outside in June, contrasting with the smaller proportion of those living in the north-east who said the same (49%). The disparity in the quality of health care infrastructure between northern and southern Italy could account for this result.
Overall, our findings suggest that, while the public largely supports the Prime Minister Conte’s handling of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the impending economic crisis could shake their confidence in the government in the coming months.