Italy set to tighten lockdown as number of COVID-19 deaths passes China

March 20, 2020, 3:04 PM UTC

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government is set to reinforce and extend the near-total lockdown on Italy as it struggles to contain the coronavirus, after overtaking China as the country with the highest recorded number of deaths.

Conte is weighing extending the current ban on nonessential activities until at least early May, according to officials who asked not to be named discussing confidential deliberations. The decision depends on factors including the spread of infections and the fact that many Italians aren’t respecting the rules, the officials said.

The government may call in the army to help enforce the restrictions and schools may not reopen before the summer break, the officials added. The further tightening may also include a ban on outdoor sports and on Italians’ “passeggiate,” or strolls, with citizens allowed to leave their homes only for work or health reasons, or for emergencies.

Italy on Thursday surpassed China as the country with the highest recorded death toll from the coronavirus. The number of Italian fatalities reached 3,405, civil protection officials said Thursday, with the pandemic also gathering pace in Spain and France as European governments struggle to prevent the disease from spreading.

The virus claimed 235 lives in Spain over the past 24 hours as the death toll surged almost a week into a nationwide lockdown. The total number of deaths rose 31% to 1,002, the health ministry said Friday.

Despite their confinement, Italians were together in song at 11 a.m. Friday, when all radio networks united to broadcast the national anthem followed by the songs “Azzurro,” “La Canzone del Sole,” and “Nel blu dipinto di blu.”

Officials in northern Italy have been calling on Conte to get tougher in extending and enforcing the lockdown, even at the risk of further straining the economy in an area that accounts for the lion’s share of Italy’s gross domestic product. The Lombardy region around Milan could move to further restrict the types of businesses allowed to operate, newspaper La Stampa reported.

Conte is expected to announce new measures before the current restrictions expire on March 25. Soldiers have already been deployed in the southern regions of Sicily and Calabria. Italian newspapers reported on possible new restrictions earlier Friday.

Police performed checks on more than 1 million people between March 11 and March 17, Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said Thursday, citing almost 50,000 for failing to respect the rules. Italy’s lockdown includes travel restrictions and a virtual ban on all shops except for groceries, pharmacies and gas stations.

The current school session, which was set to resume April 3, would still be considered complete, Italian media reported, with students graduating and moving on to the next year as normal.

Conte has also called for action from the European Stability Mechanism, the euro-area firewall established after the sovereign debt crisis. “The route to follow is to open ESM credit lines to all member states to help them fight the consequences of the Covid epidemic, under the condition of full accountability by each member state on the way resources are spent,” Conte told the Financial Times.

Ministers and policy makers across the continent have again ramped up efforts to counter the outbreak and mitigate the devastating effects on societies and economies with millions of people forced to stay home.

The U.K. and Greece were among those announcing new financial initiatives, while France urged workers to maintain food supplies. Leaders made it more apparent they don’t expect the fight against Covid-19 to end soon even as new cases have slowed to a trickle in China, the original epicenter.

Macron’s Message

The death toll, though, rose more rapidly elsewhere. In Spain, the number shot up 28% to 767, while France reported a 41% increase to 372. French President Emmanuel Macron said it was unclear how many virus waves the world could be facing, and that efforts to arrest the outbreak will likely be implemented again in the future.

In the meantime, he urged people to strike a balance between staying home and keeping the country running as the coronavirus rips into one of Europe’s biggest economies.

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