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North Italy leader demands total shutdown over virus

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Rome (AFP)

The head of the Lombardy region around Milan urged the Italian government Wednesday to shut down all non-essential businesses and transport for 15 days in the industrial north to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The appeal from Attilio Fontana came as Italy's death toll from the new disease shot up to 631 and infections surpassed 10,000, the worst numbers after China.

The Italian fashion and financial capital Milan has already seen waves of government restrictions that led globally famous boutiques such as Armani to close their shops.

Fontana said he and 12 regional mayors decided more was needed to halt the spiralling spread of COVID-19.

"If the contagion continues to spread at this speed, the system will not be able to hold on for much longer," Fontana told the Corriere della Sera daily.

"We are really reaching the maximum limits," he added on Sky TG24 television.

"It is clear that the situation is approaching a dangerous moment."

- 'Suspending public transport' -

The Italian government initially responded to the outbreak by quarantining 50,000 people in 11 villages that were worst affected by the disease.

That was followed on Sunday with restrictions on travel and public gatherings in the Lombardy region and surrounding areas such as Venice in which more than 15 million live and 40 percent of all economic activity occurs

The Lombardy measures were extended to all of the Mediterranean country's 60 million people on Tuesday morning.

The restrictions have had a profound effect on the way Italians live and work.

The central streets of Rome were deserted on Wednesday morning and busses that are usually crammed with commuters ran almost empty.

Tourists have essentially disappeared and the Vatican's Saint Peter's Square is closed to all but those who want to enter the basilica to pray.

People have been told to keep at least a metre (three feet) from each other and handshakes are frowned upon. Italians have found themselves starting to talk to each other a few steps apart -- while often laughing about the regulations along the way.

"For the love and a sense of responsibility toward Rome and all citizens, with enormous and profound disappointment, we decided to close to help the whole community out," said a sign on one restaurant in Rome's popular Trastevere neighbourhood.

"As soon as the emergency has passed, we will organise a free carbonara day for doctors, nurses and healthcare workers."

All restaurants and bars across Italy have to shut by evening and can only offer home deliveries.

But Lombardy's Fontana said this was not enough.

"Consideration should be given to suspending public transport because it is a definitely a means by which the virus spreads," he said.

The government in Rome was expected to review the request on Wednesday,

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