Coronavirus: Could Italy’s radical containment efforts soon be adopted in Britain?

School closures, curfews and travel bans affect millions as Italians face largest restriction on movement since Second World War

Harry Cockburn
Monday 09 March 2020 21:00 GMT
Italy imposes quarantine on millions to contain coronavirus

Diseases recognise no borders, but somehow, two and a half months after coronavirus emerged in eastern China at the end of 2019, it is now Italy, 5,400 miles away, that has the second-highest number of cases.

Italy was among the very first countries to stop direct flights to China, schools in the north of the country closed on 24 February, and universities and all other schools were shut at the beginning of March.

But, despite containment efforts, the number of people infected jumped to 9,172 on Monday, while the death toll rose to 463.

The virus is now in every region of the country, but 85 per cent of the cases and more than 90 per cent of the deaths have been in the north.

The surge in cases prompted the Italian government to approve further emergency measures, which, as of Monday morning, significantly limit the movement of 16 million people, mostly in the north of the country.

The lockdown applies to everyone in Lombardy and 14 other central and northern provinces who will now require special permission to travel. Milan and Venice are both affected.

When news of the quarantine plan was leaked to the media on Saturday evening, it sparked panic, with many people swiftly attempting to flee the lockdown in the north.

According to the new measures, tourists and residents trying to enter or leave the affected areas must provide the authorities with a valid reason for travelling, show identification and provide a telephone number, or they can face fines.

Schools are being closed until 3 April, and public gatherings including all sporting events have been cancelled. Theatres, cinemas and other entertainment venues nationwide have been ordered to suspend their activities, and in the lockdown areas, a strict 7pm curfew for bars and restaurants is operating.

“We want to guarantee the health of our citizens. We understand that these measures will impose sacrifices, sometimes small and sometimes very big,” Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, said.

“We are facing an emergency, a national emergency. We have to limit the spread of the virus and prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed.”

Fabrizio Pregliasco, a virologist at Milan University, said: “The virus is severely testing our health facilities and we need to limit children getting together.”

Speaking to Bloomberg, he said: “Closing schools is a necessary measure because it will help limit the spread.”

Soldiers wearing masks control passengers arriving at the Milan Central railway station on March 9 (AFP/Getty)

Meanwhile, in South Korea, which is the country with the third-most infected people, after Italy overtook it as the second most affected country, officials have today reported 69 new cases — the lowest daily increase in two weeks.

Also in China, there are just 40 new cases — representing the lowest rise since 20 January, with governments largely crediting the slowdown to strict containment.

In an effort to explain the high death rate in Italy, authorities have drawn attention to the country’s ageing population as one of the key causes.

“In the case of the coronavirus, we must consider the fact that Italy has an elderly population, actually much older than the Chinese one, which needs to be protected from the contagion,” Italy’s National Health Institute told Italian news website The Local on Thursday.

Furthermore, the rapid rollout of testing in Italy in recent days has also been cited as a reason why numbers of cases appear to have soared so rapidly.

The World Health Organisation has said overall infections have probably been underreported, given many are asymptomatic or very mild, but Italy has carried out large-scale testing on tens of thousands of people in an effort to thwart the rapidly spreading virus, resulting in a sudden uptick in numbers diagnosed.

For people living in the quarantined Lombardy region of Italy, life is continuing — albeit under the most restrictive limits on movement since the Second World War.

A web developer in the city of Lecco, 30 miles north of Milan, told The Independent that until the number of cases surged over the weekend and the introduction of the travel crackdown was introduced on Monday, he felt the impact of the measures had been less keenly felt.

“This morning things changed,” he said. “There are policemen enforcing [the lockdown] on the streets and at train stations. People can move, but they have to fill out the forms. The bottom line is the government is asking very strongly for people to stay where they are and limit all unnecessary contact.

“Bars and restaurants are open, but there are curfews. They have to close by 7pm. It’s never happened before. If you think these regions are so big, and they are locked down, in Europe, during peacetime. It hasn’t happened before. It is quite mad.”

“But I live in not a big city, and the situation I perceive when I’ve been out to the supermarket is that people are actually quite calm. There has been a bit of complaining, but it’s not like people are freaking out or turning violent.

“You can feel it, even in the house, that there is less noise — less people around, and I wouldn’t have said the same thing last week. Something has visibly changed in the last two days. This thing was fast. In two weeks the situation changed very quickly — but that’s only my perception.”

He added: “In Lecco, things are calm, but in Milan, it’s not exactly the same. Services are under strain.”

In the UK, where five people have died and 319 people have been diagnosed with the virus, many are looking to Italy as a guide to what the coming weeks may hold.

On Monday the UK government said people who show “even minor” signs of fever should self isolate for seven days.

Boris Johnson’s administration has been criticised for not taking stronger measures to halt the spread of the disease, such as closing schools and halting flights to Italy, but the prime minister said it was “critical” to take the right decisions at the right time.

Public Health England said it will roll out “enhanced monitoring” of flights from all parts of Italy from Wednesday.

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