Most of Italy, including its capital Rome and its financial centre Milan, will have curbs on business and movement intensified from Monday as the government ramps up its efforts to stem a steady rise in coronavirus cases.
The country will also be placed under a nationwide lockdown over the Easter weekend for the second year running, the government said on Friday.
Italy, the first Western country hit hard by the pandemic, saw infections rise by 10% this week compared with the week before, and officials have warned that the situation is deteriorating as new, highly contagious variants gain ground.
In recent months the country has calibrated restrictions in its 20 regions according to a four-tier, colour-coded system (white, yellow, orange and red) based on local infection levels which are revised every week.
Under an order approved on Friday by Health Minister Roberto Speranza seven regions have been shifted into the toughest red zones, including Lombardy around Milan, and Lazio around Rome.
Three other regions were already red, meaning half the country’s regions and most of its population will be under the most severe restrictions from Monday.
In these areas schools and non-essential shops will be closed and Italians will only be allowed to leave their homes for work, health or emergency reasons.
“I hope that this will be the last sacrifice asked of our citizens,” said Lombardy President Attilio Fontana.
Italy has reported more than 100,000 deaths from the disease since discovering its first cases 13 months ago, the seventh highest toll worldwide.
The whole country will become a red zone over Easter, from April 3-5, Mario Draghi’s one-month old government ruled.
It was not immediately clear how the new decree would affect churchgoers in the Catholic country. However, it was expected to be similar to provisions last Christmas when people were allowed to go to churches in their neighbourhoods.
A Vatican source said Pope Francis’ Easter Eve Mass likely would be held a few hours earlier so that faithful could get home in time for Italy’s 10 p.m. curfew and that the pontiff’s Holy Week activities before Easter would be held in the Vatican with a limited number of participants.
Unlike last year, Friday’s decree allows for limited visits to friends and relatives over the Easter holiday – for example to see elderly parents.
Apart from Lazio and Lombardy, after the latest shifts in the colour-coded restrictions, the red regions will be Emilia Romagna, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Veneto and Piedmont in the north, Marche in the centre and Campania, Puglia and Molise in the south.
All the other regions except the island of Sardinia will be orange, limiting movement between towns and restricting bars and restaurants to take-away service only.
Sardinia, where infection rates are low, remains a white region with relatively modest curbs on daily life.
As Italy tries to accelerate its anti-COVID vaccination drive, Draghi said on Friday some 170,000 people per day are currently being inoculated and he aimed to “quickly” triple this number.
These efforts got a boost later on Friday when the Italian medicines agency approved the use of Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, paving the way for the first shots to be delivered in a month.