Italy to close all shops and businesses as coronavirus declared pandemic

Italy's coronavirus lockdown as been ramped up as Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announces all businesses and shops must close.

In an address this evening the Italian government said all stores except pharmacies and food outlets will be closed in response to the country's coronavirus outbreak.

The country has the highest number of cases in Europe and the highest number of deaths outside China, with over 827 fatalities.

It comes as the spread of the COVID-19 virus has been upgraded by the World Health Organisation to a 'pandemic'.

Italy has enacted the stricter measures after an initial lockdown in the north failed to prevent the spread.

The government on Monday also banned all non-essential travel and public gatherings throughout Italy until April 3.

All sports events have been halted and a shutdown of schools has been extended.

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Italy is in already in lockdown and close to recession, and PM Conte earmarked $28.3 billion to ease the economic impact.

He said restrictions on movement might be tightened further after the northern region of Lombardy, home to Italy's financial capital Milan, asked for all shops to shut and public transport to close.

It comes as regional chiefs in the north of Italy urged the government to follow the Chinese lead and block most day-to-day activities.

"I want to see the roads empty, lights off in the bars, the beaches empty, the squares deserted," said Luca Zaia, governor of the affluent Veneto region.

Only four days ago he had accused Conte of an over-exaggerated response to the epidemic.

Conte said on Wednesday he was ready to act on requests from the north, but that any fresh measures, such as closing businesses and stores, could not be taken lightly.

"The main objective is to protect citizens' health, but we must take into account that there are other interests at stake.

We must be aware that there are civil liberties that are being violated. We must always proceed carefully."

The mayor of the southern city of Messina in Sicily had no such qualms, saying he planned to introduce a curfew and allow only food stores to remain open. Cateno De Luca said Messina could only count on 10 intensive care beds, meaning it would be unable to cope with mass infections.

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Elderly people are particularly susceptible to the virus and Italy has the oldest population in Europe, with 23% aged 65 or above.

Experts say this might be the reason why the fatality rate here is 6.6% – significantly higher than elsewhere.

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Most Italians appear to be respecting the most severe controls placed on a Western nation since World War Two, with traffic much quieter than usual in major cities, many shops and restaurants closed and only a few flights operating.

There are now more than 118,000 infections in 114 countries and 4,291 people have died of the virus, with the numbers expected to climb.

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