ROME (Reuters) – Italy will be placed under national lockdown for much of the Christmas and New Year holidays, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Friday, as the government seeks to prevent a further rise in coronavirus cases.
The announcement ended days of indecision and bickering within the coalition, which was divided between those who wanted a complete shutdown and those who demanded more limited action to help struggling businesses and allow some meetings of family.
“The situation is difficult all over Europe. The virus continues to circulate everywhere,” Conte told reporters.
“Our experts were seriously concerned that there would be an increase in cases over Christmas. … So we had to act, but I can assure you that it was not an easy decision.”
Under the new rules, non-essential stores will be closed from December 24-27, December 31-January 3 and January 5-6. On these 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. Conte said police would not be sent to people’s homes to check the rules were being followed, but he called on Italians to show responsibility.
Shops will be able to open between December 28 and 30 and January 4 and people will be free to leave their homes at that time. However, throughout the festive period, all bars and restaurants must remain closed.
Conte pledged compensation totaling some 645 million euros ($790 million) to help the hospitality sector which has been ravaged by the 10-month health crisis.
Italy was the first western country to be hit hard by the virus in February and as of Friday 67,894 people had died from the disease here, the highest toll in Europe.
After a summer lull, infections soared in October, forcing new government restrictions. These have since been largely eased, but with hundreds of people still dying every day, the government is increasingly concerned that the impending Christmas holidays could trigger an uncontrolled spread of the virus.
Under a decree passed in early December, movement between regions from December 21 to January 6 was already banned and ski resorts were closed during the same period, with restrictions on anyone entering Italy.
Reporting by Angelo Amante, Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alistair Bell