Debt-Hit Italy 'To Dump Public Holidays'

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Italians and the Catholic Church are up in arms after the Government revealed it was considering cutting the number of public holidays to increase output as the country totters on the brink of a financial crisis.

According to the latest finance ministry figures, Italy's public debt has spiralled to more than £1tn, with family spending as well as exports down and gross domestic product forecast to drop 2%.

It means there appears to be no real end to the recession in sight until next summer at the earliest.

As a result, technocrat prime minister Mario Monti is considering cutting back on public holidays in a bid to increase growth after officials said even slashing days off by a working week would boost growth and raise GDP by as much as 1%.

Italy has a total of 11 recognised public holidays a year but, unlike Britain, these remain fixed and if they fall mid-week people traditionally take the days off either side as well in order to "make a bridge" until the weekend, which has drastic consequences on industrial output.

As well as the religious holidays around Christmas and Easter, Italy also celebrates the end of World War Two with Republic Day on June 2 and Liberation Day on April 25 and May Day on May 1 - while individual cities such as Rome and Milan also have public days to mark their patron saint's days on June 29 and December 7, respectively.

Government officials, who are due to discuss the proposal next week, are said to be considering removing Boxing Day and the two military festivities from the public holiday calendar - much to the annoyance of the Church and veterans' groups as well as tourist board chiefs.

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi also considered the idea before he stepped down from power last November (Stuttgart: A0Z24E - news) but such was the outcry that he immediately dropped the proposal.

Mr Monti is a very different character and not so easily swayed, as with his economics background he knows how important it is for the country to work in order to pull itself out of the economic crisis.

Sources say the Government will keep the "main religious festivals such as Easter and Christmas" but are looking at scrapping some of the secondary ones such as Boxing Day, Epiphany on January 6 and the Immaculate Conception on December 8.

One idea drawn up by ministers Antonio Catricala and Antonio Polillo, from the finance ministry, is to move them and the military holidays to the nearest Sunday so they will in effect still be celebrated but not on the specific date itself.

Mr Polillo himself has said that, by scrapping or moving five holidays, production would increase by 1% and various key government ministries have been asked to look at the proposal and present their findings at a cabinet meeting next week.

He added: "I hope that this proposal is seriously considered because this would be one of the key ways of resolving the economic crisis."

However, an editorial in Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference, slammed the idea headlining its story on the proposal "Don't touch our holidays".

It added that the Government's proposal was "in effect a steam roller powering through the calendar which for many Italians does not even contain Sundays any more", adding that "civil and human richness in religious festivals was worth more than 1% of Gross Domestic Product".

While the National Association of Italian Partisans said in a statement: "We have no objection to citizens being asked to make sacrifices in what is a difficult time for the country but you cannot ask them to renounce history and the foundations of what our society is based on, that is too much.

"These holidays represent the best of our past, the values on which our republic was founded on, they are in a word history and they should not be touched. You cannot tell us that there are no other ways of boosting productivity and increasing growth.

"The country should be left its history and it should be allowed to conserve its values, values that the majority of the country are fully supportive of, that is what we are asking the government to remember."

Politicians from all parties were also against the idea with Armando Cirillo of the Democratic Left saying it was "useless and dangerous" as it would affect tourism and have a negative effect on the economy as a result.

While Alfredo Mantovano, from Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, said: "I really don't see how abolishing five holidays a year will resolve the situation in Italy. Besides, we are also talking about abolishing centuries of tradition."