Italy bans travel in bid to slow virus deaths

Rome (AFP) –


Italy banned travel and shut down a range of industries Monday in a last-ditch push to stem the spread of a coronavirus that has killed nearly 5,500 people in a month.

The latest wave of restrictions is designed to get the Mediterranean country through a vital 10-day stretch in which the rate of deaths and infections is supposed to finally drop.

Italy's health officials sounded notes of guarded hope after reporting another 651 fatalities on Sunday.

The figure was the second-highest recorded during the crisis and above that officially registered anywhere else in the world in a day.

But it was still lower than the record 793 deaths health officials announced on Saturday.

The number of new infections also rose Sunday by a relatively modest 10.4 percent.

The chief health officer of northern Italy's devastated Lombardy region sounded uncharacteristically upbeat Sunday.

"These figures are always a matter of either seeing the glass as half full or half empty," Giulio Gallera wrote on Facebook.

"Today, the glass is half full."

- Confusion -

Italy has sacrificed its economy and liberties by shutting down and banning almost everything to halt the spread of a virus the government views as an existential threat.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte took the extra step late Saturday of announcing plans to close "non-essential" factories and trades until April 3.

Italians spent much of Sunday trying to figure out what exactly Conte meant.

The government released a long list of industries and professions that would still be allowed.

These included translation services and chemical processing plants. Auto part makers were allowed to stay open, but steel mills were not.

Lawyers were told to work from home, but reporters were allowed to meet in newsrooms.

The decrees published Monday added to the air of confusion in the face of a disease Conte on Saturday called Italy's biggest threat since World War II.

They include a separate instruction forbidding Italians "from moving by public or private means of transport outside the municipality in which they are currently located".

This theoretically means that Italians cannot travel to their second homes at the weekend or visit out-of-town relatives.

There is an exception for people who can prove they must travel "for work needs of absolute urgency or for health reasons".

The long list of "essential" industries is accompanied by reports of companies urgently lobbying the government to be allowed to open their doors for the coming week.

- Decisive week -

The reality is that Conte's team is slowly running out of things to close or ban -- other than imposing a Chinese-style quarantine of cities and entire regions.

Ministers and health experts are all looking at the daily death toll and infection rates to see if their approach has worked.

Other nations are watching also, as they calibrate their response to a virus whose spread is currently being fought by measures that are restricting people's freedoms and devastating economies.

Both local and national officials pleaded with Italians while announcing their restrictions to sacrifice their liberties for the common good for two weeks.

The two-week deadline in Lombardy expired on Sunday.

The restrictions Conte imposed nationally are set to end of Wednesday, while the closure of schools and public buildings is due to expire on April 3.

His decision on what Italy intends to do next is expected this week.