Rome: Travel was restricted across Italy from Tuesday and public gatherings were forbidden throughout the country, as the government placed the whole country on lockdown to fight the spread of the new coronavirus.
Marriages and funerals were banned for more than three weeks under the quarantine and bars and restaurants were told to close at 6.00pm, with the prime minister urging people to ‘stay at home’.
The unprecedented measures, in place until April 3, were extended from several large areas of the north to Italy’s entire population of more than 60 million in a decree signed Monday night.
Since the COVID-19 disease first emerged in China late last year, Italy has become Europe’s hardest-hit country and has seen a rapid rise in cases to more than 9,000, with more than 450 deaths so far.
“All forms of gatherings in public places or sites open to the public were banned,” the decree said while sporting events of all levels and disciplines were cancelled – stopping play in the top-flight Serie A football league.
Schools and universities were all immediately closed and businesses were urged to give their employees leave.
Under the new rules travel is only allowed for the most urgent work or health reasons, but people will be able to return to their own homes from elsewhere.
The measures extend a quarantine zone that Italy had imposed Sunday for its industrial northern heartland around the cities of Milan and Venice.
As of Monday night, a count showed Italy had recorded more than half of the deaths reported outside China.
Before signing the decree, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said in a dramatic evening television address that it could ‘be summarised as follows: I stay at home’. “Everyone must give up something to protect the health of citizens,” Conte said. “Today is our moment of responsibility. We cannot let our guard down.”
Italian officials faced a further headache after prisoners fearful of infection protested or rioted in 23 jails across the country – leaving several dead. Some prisoners have been asking to be granted amnesty over the health crisis.
Meanwhile in a separate development Pope Francis urged Catholic priests Tuesday to ‘have the courage’ to go out and help those sickened by the coronavirus, hours after Italy was placed on a nationwide lockdown.
“Let us pray to the Lord also for our priests, that they may have the courage to go out and visit the sick… and to accompany the medical staff and volunteers in the work they do,” the pontiff said during a mass in Vatican City.
St Peter’s Square in the Vatican – in the centre of the Italian capital Rome — was almost empty Tuesday with only a few dozen people walking around, most of them without masks.