Italy coronavirus outbreak spreads south as cases spike


Rome (AFP)

Italy's new coronavirus spread south on Tuesday to Tuscany and Sicily, as the civil protection agency reported a surge in the number of infected people and Rome convened emergency talks.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has blamed poor management in a hospital in the country's north for the outbreak, which has caused seven deaths in Italy so far and infected the largest number of people in Europe.

Tuscany reported its first two cases, including one in the tourist destination of Florence, while Sicily recorded one: a tourist from the worst-hit Lombardy region, where 212 people have tested positive.

The Liguria region, known as the Italian Riviera, also reported its first case, but cautioned that the definitive result for the 70-year old still needed to come from Italy's infectious diseases institute.

Health ministers from neighbouring countries were to meet in Rome as the number of confirmed infections jumped to 283, with over 50 new cases reported since Monday.

The EU's health commissioner and other international health officials were also expected in the Italian capital Tuesday.

- 'Unfair' -

Hundreds of people were confined to their rooms in a Tenerife hotel after an Italian tourist was hospitalised with suspected coronavirus, health officials in the Canary Islands said.

Croatia confirmed the first case in the Balkans region after a young man who recently returned from Italy -- which lies across the Adriatic from Croatia -- was found to have become infected.

Austria also saw its first two cases confirmed on Tuesday in the Tyrol province, which borders Italy.

One of the two patients is from Lombardy, but it is not yet clear how they contracted the virus.

While no neighbouring country has closed its borders with Italy, several governments have announced additional measures for incoming travellers, in particular from the two northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto.

They range from medical screening to special gates at airports and recommendations to self-isolate.

Conte insisted however that Italy's health protocols were "among the most rigorous" and warned it would be "unfair" for other countries to attempt to limit the movement of Italians, saying "we wouldn't be able to accept that.

He said it was safe for Italians to travel, both for them and for others.

- 'Mission Impossible' -

Wide-ranging measures to halt the spread of the virus have affected tens of millions of people in the north of Italy, with schools closed and cultural and sporting events cancelled.

Several upcoming football matches in Italian Serie A and the Europa League will be played behind closed doors and production of the latest "Mission: Impossible" film starring Tom Cruise in Venice has also been stopped.

The main centre of infection in Italy has been the town of Codogno, a town of some 15,000 people around 60 kilometres (35 miles) to the south of Milan.

Codogno and several other towns in northern Italy have been put under isolation.

His heavily pregnant wife, several doctors, staff and patients at the hospital are thought to have caught the virus from him.

Elsewhere in the country officials have also been recommending precautionary measures, even in areas without known infections.

In Calabria in the south, bishops have asked their worshippers not to make the sign of peace during mass, media reported.

All seven of those who have died so far in Italy were either elderly or had pre-existing medical conditions.