Coronavirus pandemic
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
A man wearing a protective mask passes by the Coliseum in Rome. Photo: AFP

Coronavirus: Italy quarantines 15 million people, creating chaos after plan leaks

  • With more than 230 fatalities, Italy has recorded the most deaths from the Covid-19 disease of any country outside China
  • The virus has now spread to all 22 Italian regions and the first deaths are being recorded in Italy’s less medically equipped south
More than 15 million people across a vast swathe of northern Italy woke on Sunday to find themselves cut off from the rest of the country, after the government imposed a virtual lockdown to prevent the coronavirus spreading.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed off on plans that strictly limit movement in and out of the north, including Venice and the financial capital Milan, for nearly a month.

“For Lombardy and for the other northern provinces that I have listed there will be a ban for everybody to move in and out of these territories and also within the same territory,” Conte said. “Exceptions will be allowed only for proven professional needs, exceptional cases and health issues.”

With more than 230 fatalities, Italy has recorded the most deaths from the Covid-19 disease of any country outside China, where the outbreak began in December. The new rules came shortly after the news the number of people infected had jumped by over 1,200 in a 24-hour period.

“The virus closes the heart of the north,” the Stampa daily’s headline read, while Il Messaggero went with “Half of Italy shuts”.

There was chaos and confusion in the northern Italian city of Padua in the Veneto region as word spread late on Saturday evening that the government was planning to announce the quarantine.

Packed bars and restaurants quickly emptied out as many people rushed to the railway station in Padua. Travellers with suitcases, wearing face masks, gloves and carrying bottles of sanitising gel shoved their way on to the local train.

Italian virologist Roberto Burioni described the leak as “pure madness”.

“The draft of a very harsh decree is leaked, sparking panic and prompting people to try and flee the [then] theoretical red zone, carrying the virus with them,” he wrote on Twitter. “In the end, the only effect is to help the virus to spread. I’m lost for words”.

A woman wearing a protective face mask walks along one of the streets of the Milan's fashion district. Photo:

The virus has now spread to all 22 Italian regions and the first deaths are being recorded in Italy’s less medically equipped south. The head of the Puglia region in southern Italy pleaded with anyone thinking of returning from Lombardy and the other 11 provinces in lockdown – which include the cities of Parma and Rimini – to “stop and turn around”.

“I’m speaking to you as if you were my children, my brothers, my grandchildren,” he said on Facebook. “Get off [the train] at the first station, don’t get on the flights to Bari and Brindisi, turn your cars around, get off the bus at the next stop. Don’t bring the epidemic to Puglia.

“You are carrying to the lungs of your brothers and sisters, grandparents, uncles, cousins, and parents, the virus that has severely strained the health system in northern Italy.”

Coronavirus quarantine: what is it like in Singapore, the US and France, versus Hong Kong?

Meanwhile, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis on Sunday urged Italy to ban its citizens from travelling abroad. The Czech Republic has registered 26 cases of the virus – most with an origin in Italy – and put 1,100 people in quarantine.

“I think it’s important that Prime Minister [Giuseppe] Conte calls on all Italians not to leave Italy at all,” the billionaire populist Babis told the public Czech Television. “It’s clear that Italy unfortunately doesn’t have it under control.

“They [Italians] shouldn’t travel to Europe because most of the cases in Germany, France, Spain … have originated in Italy.”

The World Health Organisation on Sunday saluted Italy’s “genuine sacrifices” following the lockdown.

“The government & the people of Italy are taking bold, courageous steps aimed at slowing the spread of the #coronavirus & protecting their country & world,” WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted. “They are making genuine sacrifices. @WHO stands in solidarity with Italy & is here to continue supporting you.”

Pope Francis expressed solidarity on Sunday with the victims of the coronavirus in his first live-streamed prayer and message from the Vatican.

“I am close through prayer with the people who suffer from the current coronavirus epidemic,” the 83-year-old pope said in a message recorded at the Vatican library and aired live on a screen on Saint Peter’s Square before a small crowd.

After the city of Venice cancelled its cherished Carnival and governments warned citizens against travel to Italy, the epicentre of Europe’s outbreak, the country faces a possible recession. Hotel occupancy rates in the lagoon city are down to about 2 per cent.

Coronavirus: how big is the threat to Iran?

“The surface of the Grand Canal is like glass because the boats that transport merchandise are not there. On the vaporetti [water buses], there are only five or six people,” said Stefania Stea, vice-president of the Venice hoteliers association.

Ministers decided at an all-night emergency meeting that broke up early on Saturday to call in retired doctors as part of an effort to bolster the strained health care system with 20,000 additional staff.

The head of the Italian ruling coalition’s junior partner became the latest high-profile figure to confirm they had been infected.

“I am fine,” the Democratic Party’s Nicola Zingaretti said on Facebook. “I will have to stay at home for the next few days.”

Italy’s Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora called on Sunday for an immediate suspension of the Serie A football season.

Around the world, more and more countries have been bracing for a major increase in virus cases. Western countries have been increasingly imitating China – where the virus first emerged late last year, and which has suffered the vast majority of infections – by imposing travel controls and shutting down public events.

In countries where the virus is already present, the number of cases continued to increase.

In Britain, the Department of Health said the number of cases had increased to 206, up from 163 the day before. Two people in the country have died of the coronavirus.

France has 716 confirmed cases with 11 deaths, according to a report by France 24 news site.

European governments and the public stepped up their preparations amid concerns at the outbreak’s continued spread. Measures included cancellations of events, school closures and other ways to mitigate the wider effects of the virus.

In Germany, which has almost 800 cases, the issue is expected to dominate a meeting of coalition leaders on Sunday, where politicians are to consider measures to protect the economy, according to reports. Events with more than 1,000 participants should be cancelled to halt the progression of the coronovirus, Germany’s health minister said on Sunday.

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, DPA

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: north Italy lockdown as death toll tops 230, cases near 6,000