The Italian government was plunged into crisis on Wednesday night, after the resignation of three ministers from the ruling coalition put the future of prime minister Giuseppe Conte in doubt.

The departures came as Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister and leader of the small Italia Viva party, pulled his support from Mr Conte’s coalition. That decision followed weeks of sustained criticism of the government’s economic response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The ministers are Teresa Bellanova, agriculture minister; Elena Bonetti, family minister; and Ivan Scalfarotto, a junior minister for foreign affairs.

“There will be a reason if Italy is the country that has the highest number of deaths and a collapse in GDP,” Mr Renzi said, blaming the government’s handling of the pandemic for the resignations.

“It is much more difficult to leave your position than to cling to the status quo,” he added, arguing that his decision was in the best interests of the country.

Earlier in the day Mr Conte had met Italy’s president and head of state Sergio Mattarella and said that a government crisis would be punished by voters.

Mr Conte said: “I believe that a crisis would not be understood by the country at a time when there are so many challenges.”

Mr Conte may now need to seek permission from Mr Mattarella to attempt to form a new government without lawmakers from Mr Renzi’s party. To do this, he will need to win over members of other small parties or possibly breakaway members of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

If Mr Conte is unable to assemble a new majority, it is possible Mr Mattarella will pave the way for a new government to be formed without him. Early elections, which only the Italian president has the power to call, are unlikely to take place during the pandemic, or before all other options in parliament have been exhausted.

Mr Renzi was integral in pushing the centre-left Democratic party (PD) into coalition with the Five Star Movement in 2019, allowing Mr Conte to continue as prime minister following the collapse of the previous Italian coalition.

Mr Renzi then left PD to form Italia Viva and has since become a fierce critic of the prime minister, arguing that his plans to spend about €180bn from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund are inadequate.

Mr Conte, who was an obscure law professor before being picked to lead Italy’s previous governing coalition between Five Star and Matteo Salvini’s League in 2018, has no political party of his own. As a result, he may struggle to justify continuing as prime minister should a new coalition need to be formed.

He faces a scramble to find enough lawmakers to restore the majority in Italy’s upper house that he was deprived of when Mr Renzi’s IV senators withdrew their support. Yet even if he manages to do so, the upshot could be a weakened government at a moment of acute national crisis.

“If Conte finds enough parliamentarians to offset the outflow of the Renzi-ites, the next question will be, yes Conte is alive, but what kind of life are we speaking about?” said Francesco Galietti of the risk consultancy Policy Sonar. “His government would then be very weak.”

Some coalition lawmakers criticised Mr Renzi for orchestrating a government crisis during a pandemic. “A grave error made by a few that we will all end up paying for,” Andrea Orlando, deputy leader of the Democratic party, said of the move.