By Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante
ROME (Reuters) – Italy banned travel within the country on Sunday in yet another attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, as data showed a further 651 people had died from the disease, lifting the number of fatalities to 5,476.
A month after the first death from the highly infectious virus was registered in Italy, the government also issued an order freezing all business activity deemed non-essential in an effort to keep ever more people at home and off the streets.
Amongst the sectors targeted were the car, clothing and furniture industries. They have until Wednesday to wind down operations and will have to remain shuttered until April 3.
The interior and health ministries issued a separate statement, telling people they had to stay where they were, unless urgent business or health reasons forced them to move to another town or region.
Italy has registered more deaths than any other country in the world, while the number of confirmed cases is second only to China, with the tally rising by 5,560 to 59,138 on Sunday, the Civil Protection Agency said.
However, offering a ray of hope, the latest figures represented an improvement on Saturday, when the death toll rose by 793 and new cases increased by 6,557.
“We don’t want to get over enthusiastic or overestimate a trend, but compared to yesterday there is a slight drop in the figures,” said Franco Locatelli, the head of Italy’s top health council, which advises the government.
“We must not lower our guard, we must continue with the measures taken and respect the government’s instructions,” he told a news conference.
Regional leaders having been pushing Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte for days to tighten the screws as infections have spiralled, but some business leaders and financiers expressed alarm at his decision to shutter more companies.
“The closure of production activity is devastating. Our companies will lose market share and won’t be able to reopen for lack of liquidity,” Alberto Forchielli, head of Mandarin Capital Partners private equity fund, wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
“This is the end of Italy’s industrial system.”
Amongst the companies that said they were halting production in Italy were the world’s largest eyewear company, Luxottica.
However, union leaders accused Conte of not going far enough with his closure order, noting that dozens of sectors had won exemptions. They threatened to call a general strike if they thought too many workers were exposed to health risks.
In a video posted late Saturday night on Facebook, Conte said Italy was facing its most serious crisis since World War Two, with the health system in the wealthy north at breaking point and almost every intensive care bed now filled.
China has already sent medical equipment and doctors to help Italy, while more than 50 Cuban doctors arrived in Milan on Sunday to provide assistance to the stretched hospitals.
The Russian military said it would also start sending aid to Italy on the orders of President Vladimir Putin.
Domenico Arcuri, head of the government’s coronavirus relief effort, told state broadcaster RAI that Italy was “at war”.
“All wars are won in two ways, with one’s own army and with the help of ones’ own allies,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Giuseppe Fonte, Giselda Vagnoni and Gavin Jones in Rome, and Elvira Pollina in Milan; Editing by Andrew Heavens)