Officials in Italy say the death toll from Covid-19 has risen by 604 to 17,127.

The daily reported toll reached 969 on 27 March and has since levelled off.

The total of confirmed cases increased by 3,039 today to 135,586, the second successive daily decline, underscoring growing confidence that the illness is on the retreat thanks to a nationwide lockdown introduced on 9 March.

3,792 people are in intensive care.

The figures show that new cases of the virus have fallen to a 25-day low.

The Italian Prime Minister consulted leading scientists today about ways to safely end the month-long lockdown.

Giuseppe Conte's video conference with the government's scientific committee came one week before Italy's economically-crippling closure of most businesses and factories is set to expire.

The shutdown and an accompanying ban on almost all outdoor activity have helped slow the spread of the virus.

But health officials warn that the outbreak appears to have peaked only because of the various closures and bans.

They insist on keeping the containment rules in place as long as possible - perhaps until a vaccine is developed or some reliable tests can show who has immunity against the disease.

"We are far from the end," the scientific committee's head Domenico Arcuri told reporters before entering the talks with Mr Conte.

"The number of men and women who will die from the virus will continue to rise."

But Italian businesses say that they cannot afford to stand idle for much longer.

A study released by the Confcooperative small business lobby said the economy was being subjected to an "epochal shock" that would take at least two years to overcome.

It estimated that more than half of Italy's 1.3 million construction workers and over a third of the 11.4 million services sector employees were now furloughed.

Mr Conte has tried to help out both families and businesses by putting the Italian government into staggering debt.

He put forward a €25 billion emergency support programme that included about €340bn in government-backed loans for small businesses.

Mr Conte promised to inject another €400bn in a second stimulus plan.

Italy's health "emergency is also an economic and social one," he said in a nationally televised address.

A priest blesses coffins in a mortuary in Brescia, northern Italy

Mr Conte's video conference with the scientists officially focused on "Phase Two" - the formal name for the idea of taking incremental steps in easing restrictions.

The scientists' first focus is on which of the country's most economically important factories in the northern industrial heartland to allow to resume production on 14 April.

A five-point outline leaked to Italian media on Sunday included plans to instruct everyone to wear face masks in public and to self-isolate immediately in case of flu-like symptoms.

"I think many of us - if not all - will have to the used to wearing protective masks for a long time," said Mr Arcuri, the head of the government's scientific committee.

Other proposals included tracking infected people with phone apps and building more coronavirus-specific hospitals.

But small businesses such as restaurants and cafes are not expected to be allowed to resume operations for many more months.

"Even when the new coronavirus cases fall to zero, life will not be the way it was for a long time," Italy's ISS public health institute director Silvio Brusaferro warned over the weekend.

Media reports suggest that bars and nightclubs will be the very last to open nationally.

Italian doctors slam failings in Lombardy coronavirus response

Doctors in Lombardy, the Italianregion hardest hit by the coronavirus epidemic, have criticisedlocal officials for their handling of the crisis and said themistakes they made should be a lesson for everyone.
A total of 17,127 people have died from the virus in Italy,the most anywhere in the world, with Lombardy accounting for 55%of the tally. The region also accounts for 39% of the country's135,586 confirmed cases.
The particularly large death toll in Lombardy, thewealthiest region in Italy, has raised eyebrows, with localofficials suggesting that both the high urban density andconsiderable elderly population might have played a part.
However, a damning letter by senior doctors, including theheads of 11 provincial health authorities within Lombardy, saidfailures in the region's health system had exacerbated thegreatest emergency Italy has faced since World War Two.
Amongst the failings they highlighted was a lack ofprotective clothing for medical staff - a regular source ofanger since the outbreak emerged on Feb. 21.
"This determined the death of many colleagues, the illnessof many of them and the probable and involuntary spread of thecontagion, especially in the early stages of the epidemic," saidthe letter, which was posted on the website of the nationalfederation of doctors, surgeons and orthodontists.
The federation says 94 medics have died in the outbreak,many in Lombardy, which is run by the far-right League party.
There was no immediate comment from Lombardy officials.
The medics bemoaned an "absence of strategies" in tacklingthe crisis, a lack of good data and limited testing as the virusspread. This "greatly underestimated the number of patients and,to a lesser extent, the number of dead", they wrote.
While the neighbouring region of Veneto engaged inwidespread testing in a known coronavirus hotspot, Lombardy onlytested the seriously ill arriving for treatment in hospital,saying they did not have the capacity for wider checks.