Don’t shun Italy over coronavirus fears, pleads Italian government

The Italian government urged tourists and foreign visitors not to cancel their trips to Italy over fears of the coronavirus outbreak as the tourism industry is hit hard. "Tourists and business people can come," said the foreign minister.

Don't shun Italy over coronavirus fears, pleads Italian government
Photo: AFP

Italy urged tourists spooked by the new coronavirus Friday not to stay away, but efforts to reassure the world it was managing the outbreak were overshadowed by a sharp rise in case numbers.

Hotel bookings have slumped and nearly a dozen cities in the north are in lockdown as the number of infections reached 650 and deaths hit 17 — by far the highest in Europe — according to the latest figures from the civil protection agency.

As alarm grows, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio condemned “false reports circulating abroad” about panic in the country, saying they were doing “more damage” than the virus itself.

“If schools are open, if our children are going to school, tourists and business people can come,” Di Maio said.

“Out of over 7,000 towns in Italy, just over a dozen are affected by this epidemic.”

READ ALSO: Is it still OK to visit Italy amid coronavirus outbreak?

The latest toll was a sharp increase from the previous official tally showing 528 infections and 14 deaths. 

That was up from 400 cases and 12 fatalities on Wednesday. 

Explaining the steep rise, civil protection chief Angelo Borrelli said Wednesday's figures had not included all the data from the northern Lombardy region, the most badly hit part of the country.

Twelve regions have reported at least one case of the virus, including Sicily at the country's southern tip.

 MAP – The parts of Italy most affected by coronavirus outbreak

Hotel bookings in the northern city of Milan have plummeted to 20 percent, compared with nearly 90 percent normally at this time of year.

In Rome – far from the virus hotspots – more than 50 percent of bookings have been cancelled until the end of March, hotel association Federalberghi said.

The government has stopped all movement in and out of 11 towns in two regions in the north — Lombardy and Veneto — in a bid to stop the contagion spreading.

Italy had more cases than other European countries because it was performing mass tests – more than 11,000 so far – which caught positive cases that did not, however, result in illness, Di Maio said. 

READ ALSO: Coronavirus: Italy's tourism industry reports 'worst crisis in recent history' after outbreak

Italy was “reliable and transparent”, he insisted, adding it was being unfairly penalised by holidaymakers cancelling trips over fears they might catch the virus.

Some experts, however, say the country is doing too many tests and may be over-reporting the number of infections to the World Health Organization. 

All of those who have died so far in Italy were either elderly or had pre-existing medical conditions.

Wide-ranging measures to halt the spread of the virus have affected tens of millions of people in the north, with schools closed and cultural and sporting events cancelled.

Walter Ricciardi, a WHO member who advises the Italian ministry of health, said it would be clear from next week whether such measures meant Italy had stemmed the spread of the virus.

“I am optimistic. Spring and milder temperatures can help,” he said.

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Is Italy’s government planning to scrap all Covid measures?

The new Italian government has announced the end of some remaining Covid health measures. Here's a look at what will - and won't - change.

Is Italy’s government planning to scrap all Covid measures?

Few Covid-related restrictions remain in Italy today, six months after the nationwide ‘state of emergency’ ended.

The previous government had kept only a handful of precautionary measures in place – which the new government, led by Giorgia Meloni, must now decide whether or not to keep.

The cabinet is holding a meeting on Monday and will issue a decree this week detailing any changes to the health measures.

Many expect the government to scrap all measures entirely by the end of the year, after Meloni and her party criticised the way Mario Draghi’s administration handled the pandemic throughout its tenure. 

Meloni clearly stated in her first address to parliament last Tuesday that “we will not replicate the model of the previous government” when it comes to managing Covid.

READ ALSO: Five key points from Meloni’s first speech as new Italian PM

While she acknowledged that Italy could be hit by another Covid wave, or another pandemic, she did not say how her government would deal with it.

Meanwhile, new health minister Orazio Schillaci issued a statement on Friday confirming the end of several existing measures, saying he “considers it appropriate to initiate a progressive return to normality in activities and behaviour”.

Workplace ban for unvaccinated medical staff

Schillaci confirmed that the ministry will allow doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to return to work after being suspended because they refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

Those who refuse vaccination will be “reintegrated” into the workforce before the rule expires at the end of this year, as part of what the minister called a “gradual return to normality”.

They will be allowed to return “in light of the worrying shortage of medical and health personnel” and “considering the trend of Covid infections”, the statement said.

Fines issued to healthcare staff aged over 50 who refused vaccination would also be cancelled, it added.

There were some 1,579 doctors and dentists refusing vaccination at the end of October, representing 0.3 percent of all those registered with Italy’s National Federation of the Orders of Physicians, Surgeons and Dentists (Fnomceo) 

Daily Covid data reports

Schillaci also confirmed in the statement that the health ministry will no longer release daily updates on Covid-19 contagion rates, hospital cases and deaths, saying this would be replaced by a weekly update.

It said it would however make the data available at any time to relevant authorities.

Mask requirement in hospitals to stay?

The requirement to wear face masks in hospitals, care homes and other healthcare facilities expires on Monday, October 31st.

At a meeting on the same day the government is expected to decide whether to extend the measure.

READ ALSO: What can we expect from Italy’s new government?

While the government had looked at scrapping the requirement, it reportedly changed stance at the last minute on Monday after facing heavy criticism from health experts.

Media reports published while the meeting was in progress on Monday said government sources had indicated the measure would in fact be extended.

Confirmation is expected to come later on Monday.

Italy’s face mask rules in care homes and healthcare facilities are up for renewal. Photo by Thierry ZOCCOLAN / AFP

‘Green pass’ health certificate

There is no indication that the new government plans to bring back any requirements to show a ‘green pass’: the digital certificate proving vaccination against or recent recovery from Covid, or a negative test result.

The pass is currently only required for entry to healthcare facilities and care homes, and this is expected to remain the case.

‘Dismantling the measures’

Some of the confirmed changes were strongly criticised by Italy’s most prominent healthcare experts.

Head of the Gimbe association for evidence-based medicine, Nino Cartabellotta, said the focus on cancelling fines for unvaccinated healthcare workers was “irrelevant from a health point of view .. but unscientific and highly diseducative”.

He told news agency Ansa it was “absolutely legitimate” for a new government to discontinue the previous administration’s measures, but that this “must also be used to improve everything that the previous government was unable to do”.

The government should prioritise “more analytical collection of data on hospitalised patients, investments in ventilation systems for enclosed rooms … accelerating coverage with vaccine boosters,” he said.

However, the plan at the moment appeared to be “a mere dismantling of the measures in place,” he said, “in the illusory attempt to consign the pandemic to oblivion, ignoring the recommendations of the international public health authorities”.