* Draghi confident AstraZeneca suspension won’t hurt vaccine drive
* Presents 32-bln euro stimulus package
* Extends ban on firing
* Says now is not the time to worry about rising debt (Recasts after cabinet meeting, Draghi news conference)
ROME, March 19 (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Friday he would personally take the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine but defended this week’s temporary suspension over concerns about possible side effects.
Italy resumed use of the Anglo-Swedish vaccine on Friday following a green light from Europe’s medicines watchdog EMA, after a three day pause due to fears about possible blood clotting.
“Yes, I will take AstraZeneca,” the 73-year-old former European Central Bank chief said at his first news conference since taking office last month.
“Was it a mistake to suspend the vaccine? No,” he said, adding that it was the government’s duty to take the step after the health issues had emerged in some countries.
Speaking after his cabinet approved some 32 billion euros ($38.09 billion) of stimulus measures to support the battered economy, Draghi said he was convinced that any reluctance of Italians to take the vaccine would only be temporary.
The new spending decree, which was already budgeted for by the previous government led by Giuseppe Conte that collapsed in January, finances furlough schemes and grants to businesses forced to close by coronavirus lockdowns.
“The aim is to give as much money as possible to as many people as possible as quickly as possible,” Draghi said, adding “now is not the time” to worry about Italy’s rising public debt, proportionally the second highest in the euro zone.
The decree increases benefits for the unemployed and provides fresh financing for the health service as Italian hospitals grapple with a steady rise in coronavirus infections.
The government also extended a freeze on firing which was due to expire on March 31. For large businesses which have access to furlough schemes the extension runs until end-June, while for small firms it continues through October.
The firing ban was introduced last year to prevent a surge in unemployment while companies and shops were shuttered to stem COVID-19.
MORE STIMULUS COMING
Part of the 32-billion euro stimulus will be used to extend temporary layoff schemes for 13 weeks, rising to up to 28 weeks for companies which have no access to ordinary social safety nets, a draft of the decree seen by Reuters showed.
Including the latest measures, Italy has approved almost 200 billion euros of extra spending since the COVID pandemic hit the country almost 13 months ago.
With most of the country under strict lockdown restrictions, Draghi has promised more stimulus in April, which a Treasury official said would push the budget deficit close to 10% of gross domestic product, up from 9.5% last year.
Rome’s public debt stood at a post-war high of 155.6% at the end of last year.
The economy shrank 8.9% in 2020, Italy’s steepest post-war recession. It is officially forecast to rebound by 6% this year, but Draghi is expected to cut that goal significantly when Rome issues new economic forecasts next month.
Of the 32 billion euros approved on Friday, just over 11 billion will fund grants to companies, while some 2.8 billion euros will go to the health service, mainly to try to accelerate Italy’s sluggish vaccine roll-out.
The most contentious measure is an amnesty on tax arrears which created tensions in the ruling coalition. Draghi gave few details on this measure but according to the draft seen by Reuters it applies to sums of up to 5,000 euros which the authorities claimed for the period prior to 2011.
It is only available to people with an annual income of below 30,000 euros.
$1 = 0.8401 euros additional reporting by Angelo Amante, writing by Gavin Jones