Italy agrees curfew as Europe tries to stem virus surge

Rome (AFP) –


Italian officials agreed on Wednesday to impose a night-time curfew, joining a slew of European nations in ramping up restrictions in the face of a dramatic surge in coronavirus cases.

But the measure, which restricts Italians to their homes between 10:00 pm and 5:00 am, fell short of the kind of rules in force in countries including France, Belgium and Germany.

Governments in Europe are struggling to get a hold of a pandemic that has now infected more than 11 million on the continent.

Wednesday saw Russia announce a daily record for cases and deaths, upping pressure on the government only days after President Vladimir Putin said there were no plans for a lockdown.

The United States remains the worst-affected country with more than nine million cases and 230,000 deaths.

President Donald Trump, who has suffered from the virus, faced off with Joe Biden in a long-awaited election on Tuesday, with tens of millions of mask-wearing Americans streaming to the polls.

The virus has transformed the election, with many millions avoiding the queues and the risk of infection by returning postal votes before election day.

Trump's handling of the virus has also been under the microscope.

With results from crucial battleground states not yet returned, the election was on a knife-edge on Wednesday with neither candidate taking a decisive lead.

- 'Final straw' for pubs -

From Britain to Turkey, European countries have reimposed strict curbs this week, echoing their moves in spring when the virus first hit Europe following its emergence in China.

Many businesses are still struggling to recover from the damage of those earlier lockdowns –- particularly in the travel sector.

The Netherlands said on Wednesday it had agreed to inject 3.4-billion-euro ($3.9-billion) into its national airline KLM after a row with pilots was resolved.

"The past few days have been incredibly intensive for everyone," said KLM chief executive Pieter Elbers, adding: "But in the end we, as KLM and unions, came to an agreement."

Although many of the measures imposed this week are not as draconian as those earlier lockdowns, they have been resisted by many business-owners, politicians particularly from the right, and large sections of the population.

"Make no mistake, this could be the final straw for thousands of pubs and brewers," said Emma McClarkin, of the British Beer and Pub Association, with English pubs ordered to close for a month from Wednesday night.

In Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has struggled to build a coalition backing more stringent measures after sporadic protests broke out over an earlier decision to shut bars and restaurants early.

However, the curfew mixed with other restrictions such as the closure of shopping centres on weekends appeared to have struck the right compromise for regional leaders.

"We will continue to work to ensure that these provisions are observed by all Milanese," wrote Milan mayor Giuseppe Sala on Facebook, whose northern city is one of Italy's major hotspots.

- Pope 'back in library' -

Senior political figures, meanwhile, continue to fall victim to the virus. Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune is "gradually recovering" from the illness in hospital in Germany, his office said on Tuesday.

Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and two thirds of her government went into self-isolation Wednesday after the justice minister tested positive amid a new surge in cases.

Hungary's Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto tested positive shortly after meeting Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen -- with pictures showing neither man wearing a mask.

Hungary itself has reimposed a state of emergency that allows the government to rule by decree -- despite Prime Minister Viktor Orban facing allegations of a power grab when he passed a similar measure earlier in the year.

"The time has come to take new steps so that we can protect hospitals' ability to function, and also protect the lives of the elderly," said Orban.

"Unfortunately, we are back to doing this audience in the library in order to protect ourselves from the infections of Covid," said the pope on Wednesday as he streamed his weekly general audience from the Vatican Library rather than in person.

"We offer to the Lord this distance between us for the good of everyone."