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Lockdown by next week? These are the new Covid restrictions Italy is considering

Italy’s government is meeting on Monday to discuss potential new coronavirus restrictions. Here are the five possibilities on the table.

Lockdown by next week? These are the new Covid restrictions Italy is considering
Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

The goverment is looking at which measures put in place if, by Friday, the health data confirms that new infections are still rising as expected.

Last week, the GIMBE health think tank warned that Italy had entered a third wave, as health data confirmed a sharp increase in infection numbers.

In the February 24-March 2 period coronavirus cases rose by a third from the previous week to more than 123,000, the highest figure since early December, GIMBE said.

With the current trend widely expected to continue, Health minister Roberto Speranza said more red zones are likely to be declared across the country on Friday under the current system of regional and local measures.

“We’re monitoring the curve and checking which measures are most appropriate,” he said on Monday. “I expect the variants to have an impact and that more regions will go red.”

But the government is expected to introduce further measures beyond those provided under the existing tiered system of restrictions.

Several of Italy’s leading medical and scientific experts have in recent weeks said that a strict lockdown is “urgently” needed, while the government’s advisory panel, the Scientific Technical Committee (CTS) has been urging the government to adopt more stringent restrictions.

Under the March 6th emergency decree – the first one issued by the new Draghi government – some rules were altered, but the strategy for managing the pandemic overall remained the same.

However, faced with a clearly rising infection rate, the government may now change course. Draghi’s cabinet is expected to announce stricter rules, perhaps under another emergency decree – meaning the March 6th decree could be replaced just days after it came into force.

READ ALSO: Lockdowns and vaccine scepticism – how France and Italy are struggling to get Covid under control

The government is expected to make a decision by Friday March 12th, with new measures potentially coming into force by Monday March 15th.

However, ministers are reportedly divided over what form the further restrictions should take.

Italian media reports that there are five options currently being considered: from moving the evening curfew to 7pm to declaring a total nationwide lockdown for 3-4 weeks.

Here’s what the government is considering today:

  1. National lockdown

The most extreme measure being considered is a complete lockdown of up to four weeks. This could look similar to the lockdown in spring 2020 – with restrictions that go further than the current ‘red zone’ rules – or the country could alternatively be placed under ‘orange zone’ restrictions.

2. Automatic local lockdowns

Another option being considered is to have local authorities required to declare red zones when an area exceeds 250 new positives per 100,000 inhabitants in seven days. At the moment, the March emergency decree gives regional governors the right to close schools if this parameter is exceeded.

3. Weekend lockdowns

Alternatively, ministers may decide to announce a tough lockdown on weekends only, much like the ‘red days’ system used at Christmas and New Year – which experts widely credit with Italy having avoided a spike in new cases immediately after the holidays.

4. ‘Orange’ zones at weekends

A less drastic version of a weekend lockdown would mean the closure of bars and restaurants and a ban on leaving your municipality, but open shops at weekends.

5. Earlier curfew

The government is reportedly considering bringing the current 10pm evening curfew forward to 7pm or 8pm. In France, the nationwide curfew currently starts at 6pm.

Photo by Andreas SOLARO/AFP

How likely is a total lockdown?

Italy is one of few European countries to have only declared one complete nationwide lockdown, at the start of the crisis in March 2020.

Since November, the country has been under a system of varying local restrictions.

However, many parts of Italy are already effectively living under a form of lockdown, as three of the country’s 20 regions are now under the highest-level ‘red zone’ restrictions and 11 are currently ‘orange’ zones. (See the current map of regional restrictions here.)

Lombardy declared itself a ‘dark orange’ zone on Friday, while many other cities, towns and provinces, including Bologna, are under local red zone restrictions.

READ ALSO: What’s the difference between rules in Italy’s orange, dark orange and red zones?

But many experts argue that this system of varying localised restriction is not enough to keep the infection rate under control, especially when faced with new, more infectious variants.

“The regions that are not yet in the red zone will end up there soon. The situation is getting complicated and we are always in pursuit of the virus,” Massimo Galli, infectious diseases expert at the University of Milan, told La Stampa on Sunday.

“We have been talking about the English variant, which is now becoming prevalent,” he added.

“Schools and youth gatherings have been a driving force for the third wave. Children get sick less than adults, but with the variants they become infected more and carry the virus to parents and grandparents.”

According to Italy’s higher Health Institute (ISS), the so-called English variant is able to spread 35-40% faster than the original strain.

At least 54% of the cases in Italy are now caused by this variant.

‘Mini red zones’: Where are Italy’s local coronavirus lockdowns? 

“We should close for the last time, and we use this closure to vaccinate everyone,” Enrico Bucci, professor of biology at Temple University in Philadelphia, told La Repubblica.

“There are two types of lockdowns,” he said. “Lockdown can be used as a preventive measure to avoid a new wave. Or you can launch it only when you have to, because the wave has already arrived.”

“We are already too late for a preventive lockdown. And we know that if we adopt it only when the numbers force us, then we will have to make it last much longer.“

He said that “to get out of the pandemic as soon as possible, a rigorous lockdown should be combined with a massive vaccination campaign,” which he said should last “a month, maybe two”.

Italy’s Covid-19 vaccine programme has made slow progress so far, although the government last week announced a plan to speed up vaccinations significantly between March and June.

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COVID-19 RULES

Will Italy drop its Covid isolation rule as the infection rate falls?

The health ministry is reviewing its quarantine requirements as the country's Covid-19 health situation improved again this week, according to Italian media reports.

Will Italy drop its Covid isolation rule as the infection rate falls?

Italy has taken a more cautious approach to Covid in recent months than many of its European neighbours, keeping strict isolation rules in place for anyone who tests positive for the virus.

But this could be set to change in the coming days, according to media reports, as one of Italy’s deputy health ministers said the government is about to cut the isolation period for asymptomatic cases.

“Certainly in the next few days there will be a reduction in isolation for those who are positive but have no symptoms,” Deputy Health Minister Andrea Costa said in a TV interview on the political talk show Agorà on Tuesday.

“We have to manage to live with the virus,” he said.

Italy’s La Stampa newspaper reported that the compulsory isolation period could be reduced to 48 hours for those who test positive but remain asymptomatic – provided they subsequently test negative after the day two mark.

Under Italy’s current rules, vaccinated people who test positive must stay in isolation for at least seven days, and unvaccinated people for ten days – regardless of whether or not they have any symptoms.

READ ALSO: How tourists and visitors can get a coronavirus test in Italy

At the end of the isolation period, the patient has to take another test to exit quarantine. Those who test negative are free to leave; those who remain positive must stay in isolation until they get a negative test result, up to a maximum of 21 days in total (at which point it doesn’t matter what the test result says).

Health ministry sources indicated the new rules would cut the maximum quarantine period to 15 or even 10 days for people who continue to test positive after the initial isolation period is up, La Stampa said.

The government is believed to be reviewing the rules as the latest official data showed Covid infection and hospitalisation rates were slowing again this week, as the current wave of contagions appeared to have peaked in mid-July.

However, the national Rt number (which shows the rate of transmission) remained above the epidemic threshold, and the number of fatalities continued to rise.

The proposed changes still aren’t lenient enough for some parties. Regional authorities have been pushing for an end to quarantine altogether, even for people who are actively positive – an idea Costa appears sympathetic to.

“The next step I think is to consider the idea of even eliminating the quarantine, perhaps by wearing a mask and therefore being able to go to work,” he told reporters.

“We must review the criteria for isolation, to avoid blocking the country again”.

At least one health expert, however, was unenthusiastic about the proposal.

Dr Nino Cartabellotta, head of Italy’s evidence-based medicine group Gimbe, tweeted on Tuesday: “There are currently no epidemiological or public health reasons to abolish the isolation of Covid-19 positives”

Massimo Andreoni, professor of Infectious Diseases at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery of the Tor Vergata University of Rome, was more ambivalent about the prospect.

The isolation requirement for asymptomatic cases should be “revised somewhat in the light of the epidemiological data”, he told reporters, but urged “a minimum of precaution, because the less the virus circulates and the fewer severe cases there are, the fewer new variants arise”.

When the question was last raised at the end of June, Health Minister Roberto Speranza was firmly against the idea of lifting quarantine requirements for people who were Covid positive.

“At the moment such a thing is not in question,” he told newspaper La Repubblica at the time. “Anyone who is infected must stay at home.”

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