Europe shuts down as Italy records highest daily coronavirus death toll

France, Spain and Netherlands shut down all but essential services

More than 100 million people in Europe are living under lockdown to try to curb the coronavirus pandemic, as Italy's death toll rose by 368 in just 24 hours.

France, Spain and the Netherlands were the latest to shut down all but essential services and urge citizens to stay at home as the World Health Organisation announced Europe had become the centre of the global outbreak.

Pope Francis walked the empty streets of Rome, where citizens can be stopped and fined if they are found to have left their home without a justified reason, to pray at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

"With his prayer, the Holy Father called for the end of the pandemic afflicting Italy and the world, begged for healing for the many sick, recalled the many victims of these days, and asked that their family and friends can find consolation and comfort," said Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni.

Italy has now logged almost 25,000 cases less than a month since it announced its first coronavirus case, and 1,809 people have died. In a step believed to be unprecedented in modern times, the Vatican is closing its Easter services to the faithful.

State of emergency

In Spain, the worst-hit country in Europe after Italy, authorities drove the streets announcing the state of emergency on megaphones, warning citizens to stay in their homes. The government placed banners on the front of all major newspapers reading: “Together we’ll stop this virus.”

In Paris, cafes that kept serving customers throughout the second World War have locked their doors until further notice. Austria banned gatherings of more than five people.

In the UK, which is an outlier in Europe in maintaining public gatherings and open schools, health Secretary Matt Hancock denied the government's strategy was to allow the majority of the population to be infected with coronavirus in order to develop immunity. "I want to be absolutely crystal clear that we will do what is necessary to protect life," he told the BBC.

The virus has carved up Europe's Schengen area of free movement, as a series of countries put up border checks and restrictions on entry. Germany has placed checks on its borders. Denmark, Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia have banned foreign visitors. Austria and Cyprus have introduced requirements for medical certificates.

Thousands of French citizens are stranded in Morocco after the government halted flights from 30 countries, and tens of thousands of British people are marooned in the French Alps after ski resorts were shuttered. New screenings on European arrivals to the United States caused chaos in airports, with passengers forced to wait for hours in crowded queues, after people rushed to return before a ban on travel from Ireland and the UK comes into force on Monday. The US suspended travel from Schengen countries over the weekend.


There has been an international scramble to procure ventilators, which are needed to keep alive patients who cannot breathe as Covid-19 infections fill their lungs with fluid.

In Italy, one of the youngest victims of the virus was Diego Bianco, a 46-year-old ambulance worker and father of one who had been working at the centre of Italy's outbreak in Lombardy, where there is a shortage of intensive care beds and protective equipment.

"We have masks but they are running out," said Riccardo Germani, a hospital worker and spokesman for the union ADL Cobas. "Health workers are supposed to change masks every four hours, but they are keeping them on for 12."

Bianco's wife Maruska told local newspaper l'Eco di Bergamo that Bianco's "mission" in life had been to help others. His final words were: "Go to sleep, darling, I'm not going to die, I just have to find a comfy position to go back to sleep."

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times