Italy readies draconian new measures to try to contain virus

Gondoliers chat as they wait for customers near St Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy. (AP pic)

ROME: Italy prepared new emergency measures on Wednesday to try to slow the spread of coronavirus in Europe’s worst-hit country, including the possible closure of all schools, universities, cinemas, theatres and most public events.

Seventy-nine people had died of the new coronavirus in Italy as of Tuesday, with more than 2,500 confirmed cases since the outbreak surfaced 13 days ago.

A draft decree seen by Reuters spelt out the draconian steps, ordering “the suspension of events of any nature… that entail the concentration of people and do not allow for a safety distance of at least one metre to be respected.”

The decree orders the closure of cinemas and theatres, and tells Italians not to shake hands or hug each other.

A government source said schools and universities will also be closed nationwide from Thursday, though this was not in the decree seen by Reuters, and the education minister said the decision had not yet been finalised.

The measures are expected to be formally announced by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte after a meeting with regional governors later on Wednesday.

Only schools and universities in the northern regions most heavily affected by the epidemic have been closed so far. The extension of the shutdown will last at least until mid-March, the government source said.

In another sign of alarm, the sports minister said the government was likely to order all top-flight Serie A football matches be played behind closed doors until the outbreak eases.

So far, games have been cancelled in the northern regions but gone ahead over the rest of the country.

The virus outbreak remains centred on the wealthy and populous region of Lombardy around Milan and the neighbouring regions of Veneto and Emilia-Romagna, but cases are spreading around the whole of the Italian peninsula and the island of Sicily.

Rome, Sicily cases

On Wednesday, Rome’s Spallanzani infections diseases hospital said it had 20 coronavirus patients, while others were being treated at home in and around Italy’s capital and largest city.

The southern island of Sicily reported 18 cases.

The daily nationwide update will be provided by the Civil Protection Agency at around 1700 GMT.

Emilia-Romagna’s regional government said on Wednesday two of its members had tested positive and Industry Minister Stefano Patuanelli said he was in self-imposed isolation after coming into contact with a patient, though he himself had tested negative.

The outbreak has heavily disrupted daily life in the north, with cinemas and museums closed in some regions and many events cancelled including fashion shows and trade fairs.

The national health institute has instructed Italians to wash their hands frequently and avoid crowded places.

On Wednesday, the government issued a directive instructing public sector managers to reorganise offices to enable staff to work from home.

Italy’s chronically weak economic growth looks sure to suffer, with the tourist sector taking a huge hit from a wave of cancellations by holidaymakers.

Industry lobby Confindustria said the country was in recession, forecasting a fall in gross domestic product in both the first and second quarters of this year.

Confturismo, the tourist industry’s confederation, said on Wednesday the sector was “on its knees”.

It forecast a drop of some 32 million in the number of Italian and foreign tourists in the March-to-May period, with a loss to the industry of some €7.4 billion.