Leaked coronavirus plan to quarantine 16m sparks chaos in Italy.

Italian passengers getting off the train from Milan at Naples.

Italy experienced its highest day-on-day rise in deaths from coronavirus on Sunday and was plunged into chaos after details of a plan to quarantine more than 16 million people were leaked to the press, sending thousands into panic as they tried to flee.

The whole of Lombardy, including its financial capital of Milan, and 14 provinces across the worst-affected northern regions, have been shut down until 3 April as Italy grapples to contain the spread of a virus as deaths rose from 233 to 366, a rise of more than 50% in 24 hours, with 6,387 current cases overall.

Thousands crowded train stations or jumped into their cars after details of a draft decree banning people from leaving or entering the region were revealed by Corriere della Sera late on Saturday afternoon.

On Sunday morning dozens of police officers and medics wearing masks and hazmat suits waited in Salerno, Campania, for passengers who had boarded overnight trains from Lombardy as fears mount over the virus’s potential spread to the south.

“What happened with the news leak has caused many people to try to escape, causing the opposite effect of what the decree is trying to achieve,” warned Roberto Burioni, a professor of microbiology and virology at the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan. “Unfortunately some of those who fled will be infected with the disease.”

The northern regions of Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto account for 85% of the cases and more than 90% of the deaths. Puglia in the south has had 26 cases, while the provinces of Basilicata and Calabria have had just three and four cases.

Michele Emiliano, the president of Puglia, signed an order on Sunday obliging all those arriving from the north in the coming hours to go into quarantine.

“Get off at the first train station, don’t take planes to Bari and Brindisi, go back by car, get off the bus at the next stop,” he wrote on Facebook, mostly addressing people from the region who live in the north. “Do not bring the Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia epidemic to your Puglia. You are carrying the virus into the lungs of your brothers and sisters, your grandparents, uncles, cousins and parents.”

Under the decree police and armed forces will patrol Lombardy’s access points, such as train stations and motorway entrances and exits, as well as border areas of the 14 provinces under lockdown across Emilia-Romagna, the second-worst outbreak zone, Veneto and Piedmont. The provinces include Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Reggio Emilia, Rimini, Pesaro and Urbino, Alessandria, Asti, Novara, Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, Vercelli, Padua, Treviso and Venice.

People will only be able to leave the areas for emergency reasons and face fines and up to three months in jail for breaking the quarantine rules. There has been some local opposition to the measures, including from the head of Veneto, Luca Zaia, who described the inclusion of three provinces in his region, including Venice, as “scientifically disproportionate”.

Checkpoints at motorways, train stations and airports are expected to be introduced on Sunday evening but the impact on flights is unclear, with local judicial authorities to decide whether to suspend or not. Alitalia on Sunday said it would suspend all national and international flights from Milan’s Malpensa airport and operate only a reduced service for domestic flights from the city’s Linate airport.

Top flight Serie A football matches were played behind closed doors despite a call from the country’s sports minister to stop the championship.

Some of those who remained in the quarantine area expressed support for the measures to contain Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak. “Of course, I feel a little anxious and scared,” said Alessia Scoma, 30, a business consultant in Milan. “But I agree with this measure and I feel ashamed for those who left Lombardy and fled so irresponsibly. They risk infecting their loved ones and this is something that, in their shoes, I could never forgive myself.”

Prison riots however erupted in Modena and Frosinone when the inmates were informed that the new emergency decree bans visits from relatives.

Outside the quarantine area there was concern for those now unable to leave. “My mother stayed in Bergamo,” said Francesca Nava, 45, a journalist in Rome. “She is 70 years old and has survived a serious illness. The idea of not being able to reach her, for weeks, or maybe months, the idea that something might happen to her, this feeling of total impotence, leaves me breathless.”

The decree was approved by all national political parties and approved by the council of ministers on Sunday afternoon.

“The fact that the epidemic is still increasing substantially obliges us to take these measures to limit the freedom of people, which of course are very extreme measures that I don’t think have ever been taken in any other democratic country,” Walter Ricciardi, an adviser to the Italian health ministry on the coronavirus outbreak and member of the World Health Organization, told the Guardian.

“We have to be responsible and being responsible means taking measures in the interest of people, even if sometimes it is hard to understand.”

The leak of the decree and ensuing panic however sparked harsh criticism from officials. Ricciardi, who was among the team of scientists who signed it, said that he assumed it must have leaked when the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, sent the draft to the regions to get their consent. “It means that sometimes both people from the institutions and people from the press do not feel a sense of responsibility,” he said. “These kinds of procedures have to be taken very confidentially in order not to provoke panic among the people and inappropriate behaviours.”

Conte said the news leak was “unacceptable”. “This news created uncertainty, insecurity and confusion, and we cannot tolerate this,” he said during a press conference in the early hours of Sunday.

Schools and universities were already closed across Italy, but the decree closes cinemas, museums, theatres, gyms, swimming pools and ski resorts will now be closed in the new quarantine zones.

Bars and restaurants can only open between 6am and 6pm, while shops must guarantee that customers stand at least one metre apart. Weddings and funerals have also been banned in the areas affected. It is unclear how the measures will affect commercial trade in the regions. Public transport services within all territories under quarantine are expected to continue.

As coronavirus takes hold of the country, Beppe Sala, the mayor of Milan, called for a “change of lifestyle”. “We need to avoid contacts that are not strictly necessary,” he said in a video on Facebook. “Please, remain in your homes as much as you can.”

- The Guardian.

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