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UPDATE 2-Italy's Draghi looks to reopen schools, says vaccines only way out of COVID-19 crisis

* Italy has Europe’s second-highest COVID-19 death toll

* Government plans to let younger students back to school

* But PM says the situation remains very worrying (Adds latest restriction decisions)

ROME, March 26 (Reuters) - The Italian government will let younger students return to school next month, even if they are in coronavirus hotspots, but a broader relaxation of curbs will depend on infection rates, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Friday.

Although much of Italy remains in lockdown in an effort to tame a third wave of COVID-19 cases, Draghi told reporters that getting pupils back to school was a top priority.

Children aged up to 12 should be able to return to classrooms after the Easter holidays, while young pupils in the Lazio region, which is centred on Rome, will be back at their desks from Tuesday.

However Draghi, who took office last month, said he would not bow to pressure from the rightist League party, which supports his unity government, for a more generalised reopening of shops and businesses.

“The situation remains very worrying,” the former European Central Bank chief said. “The measures taken over the past year and a half have shown their worth. We want to reopen, but the decision whether or not to do so depends on the data.”

More than 107,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Italy, the second highest tally in Europe after Britain, with the country still registering hundreds of deaths each day.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza, sitting alongside Draghi, said the results of recent curbs were beginning to bear fruit, with infection rates in gradual retreat.

But, in its weekly review of restrictions, the health ministry said conditions had improved sufficiently in only one of Italy’s 20 regions, Lazio, to allow curbs there to be lessened.

The situation had worsened in three other regions -- Calabria, Tuscany and the Valle D’Aosta -- which were moved to the so-called red zone, deemed the most high risk, joining nine other regions there.

Draghi reiterated that the only way out of the 13-month crisis was to forge ahead with vaccine production and ramp up the inoculation campaign.

He has previously criticised some regions for not vaccinating elderly citizens more quickly. The government said on Friday 51% of the over-80s were still waiting for a shot, while 95% of those aged 70-79 had yet to receive one.

Italy has an entrenched anti-vaccination movement and Draghi said people who worked in the health sector would face sanctions if they refused a shot. He said he hoped to receive an AstraZeneca shot next week. (Reporting by Gavin Jones, Angelo Amante, Giuseppe Fonte; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Catherine Evans and Timothy Heritage)

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