Coronavirus: Italy goes into lockdown for Christmas as Sydney's beaches close

Cases surge in Austria and France as Sydney’s beaches enter four-day lockdown

Italy will be placed under nation-wide lockdown for much of the Christmas and New Year holiday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has announced as the government looks to prevent a fresh surge in coronavirus cases. Video: Reuters

 

Italy will be placed under a nationwide lockdown for much of the Christmas and New Year holiday, prime minister Giuseppe Conte said on Friday, as the government looks to prevent a fresh surge in coronavirus cases.

The announcement ended days of indecision and wrangling within the coalition, which was split between those wanting a complete shutdown and those pressing for more limited action to help struggling businesses and to allow some family reunions.

“The situation is difficult across Europe. The virus continues to circulate everywhere,” Mr Conte told reporters.

“Our experts were seriously worried that there would be a jump in cases over Christmas. ... We therefore had to act, but I can assure you it was not an easy decision.”

Under the new rules, non-essential shops will be closed between December 24th and 27th, December 31st and January 3rd and January 5th and 6th. On those days, Italians will only be allowed to travel for work, health or emergency reasons.

However, limited visits will be allowed, for example to see elderly parents living alone. Mr Conte said the police would not be sent into peoples’ homes to check that the rules were being respected, but he called on Italians to show responsibility.

Shops will be able to open between December 28th and 30th and on January 4th and people will be free to leave their houses at that time. However, throughout the holiday period, all bars and restaurants must remain closed.

Mr Conte promised compensation totalling some €645 million to help the hospitality sector which has been savaged by the 10-month health crisis.

Italy was the first Western country to be badly hit by the virus in February and as of Friday, 67,894 people had died as a result of the disease here, the highest toll in Europe.

Following a summer lull, infections soared in October, forcing new government curbs. These have since largely been loosened, but with hundreds of people still dying each day, the government has grown increasingly concerned that the looming Christmas break might spark an uncontrolled spread of the virus.

Under a decree passed early in December, movements between regions from December 21st to January 6th were already banned and ski resorts were closed during the same period, with restrictions on anyone entering Italy.

Austria

Meanwhile the Austrian government, after alternating between looser and tougher restrictions over the past six weeks, has ordered non-essential stores to close again, while restaurants and hotels will stay closed and schools won’t reopen as usual after the Christmas holidays. The measures take effect on December 26th and will lift on January 18th.

“The forecast for the first quarter is very, very dark,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in Vienna. “The growth of infections could turn exponential again at any time.”

Austria, which has about 9 million residents, will carry out mass testing with rapid antigen kits at the end of the lockdown. The country enacted relatively loose restrictions November 3rd and tightened them significantly from November 17th, closing schools and non-essential stores through December 6th before returning to the looser model.

Austria’s seven-day incidence of cases fell by two-thirds to about 200 per 100,000 as of Friday. The target is to bring this measure down to 100, Kurz said.

France

France reported 15,674 new Covid cases on Friday, with the rolling seven-day average of cases rising for a third day to 13,088, the highest in three weeks. Deaths rose by 610 to 60,229, making France the third European country after Italy and the UK to report more than 60,000 fatalities linked to the virus.

French president Emmanuel Macron, who is self-isolating after testing positive for Covid, said in a video message he’s doing fine, even as he described tiredness and said his level of activity is “a little slowed down.”

The French leader, who turns 43 on December 21, said he has the same symptoms as yesterday - fatigue, with a cough and headaches.

“There’s no reason it should worsen,” he said, adding that he intends to be completely transparent about his condition and will post similar videos every day.

Macron said he continues to work with the prime minister and his team, and though he has slowed down a bit because of the virus, he continues to focus on all urgent matters including the pandemic and Brexit.

India

India exceeded 10 million infections of coronavirus on Saturday, much later than predicted only a month ago as the pace of infections slows, despite many in the country giving up on masks and social distancing.

After hitting a peak of nearly 98,000 daily cases in mid-September, daily infections have averaged around 30,000 this month, helping India widen its gap with the United States, the world’s worst affected country with more than 16 million cases.

India reported 25,152 new infections and 347 deaths in the past 24 hours, data from the health ministry showed. The virus has so far killed 145,136 people in the country. India took 30 days to add the last million cases, the second slowest since the start of the pandemic.

The country expects to roll out vaccines soon and is considering emergency-use request for three types, developed by Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer and local company Bharat Biotech.

Australia

Sydney’s northern beaches will enter a legally enforced four-day lockdown from 5pm on Saturday in an effort to preserve chances of a “normal Christmas”, as the number of cases believed to be linked to the state’s cluster swells to 38.

The New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has warned the state should brace for new infection numbers announced on Sunday to be greater than the 23 locally acquired cases announced on Saturday, as she revealed her government would be consulting health experts throughout Saturday about extending a more relaxed version of the northern beaches lockdown to the rest of greater Sydney from Sunday.

Berejikian told more than 4 million people across greater Sydney to abandon all non-essential activity until midnight Wednesday, as residents on the northern beaches prepare to enter lockdown.

From 5pm on Saturday until midnight on Wednesday, residents in the Northern Beaches Council - which takes in more than 50km from The Spit to Palm Beach - will only be able to leave their homes for essential reasons, in lockdown conditions that Berejiklian likened to the statewide public health order issued in March.

- Agencies