Italy's coronavirus outbreak spreads from its northern epicentre

ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s coronavirus outbreak began spreading on Tuesday from its origins in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto, with new cases reported in central Tuscany, the coastal region of Liguria and Sicily in the south.

Sicily’s regional governor Nello Musumeci said a tourist from Bergamo, in Lombardy, had been hospitalised in the island’s capital Palermo after being diagnosed with the illness, and all those travelling with her had been quarantined.

The total number of cases in Italy, the country in Europe worst affected, rose to more than 280 from 229 on Monday, with 40 new cases reported in Lombardy and nine new ones in Veneto. Two cases were reported in Tuscany and one in Liguria.

The number of deaths was unchanged at seven.

An Italian on holiday in the Canary Islands also tested positive, triggering a lockdown of the 4-Star hotel he was staying in while two other Italian nationals were found positive in Austria, where they live.

They were believed to have contracted the virus during a trip to Lombardy.

As a swathe of European Union countries advised their citizens not to visit northern Italy, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said he would meet foreign ambassadors in Rome to explain the progress of the outbreak and measures taken to counter it.

The health emergency had yielded a fragile political truce between Italy’s warring parties which collapsed late on Monday after Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte suggested malpractice at a hospital in Lombardy may have fuelled the outbreak.

Conte said the hospital, which he did not name, had not followed the correct protocol “and this contributed to the spread”, adding that he may consider withdrawing some of the powers the regions had over health policy.

The right-wing, opposition League party, which runs both Lombardy and Veneto, reacted furiously.

Its lower-house leader Riccardo Molinari said Conte’s words were “almost fascist” while the League’s economics spokesman Claudio Borghi called the premier “a disgrace to the country”.

Lombardy Governor Attilio Fontana accused Conte of a “desperation strategy …probably trying to attack others to distract attention (from himself)”.

Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Union were due to meet in Rome on Tuesday to discuss the crisis, which first broke out in China and has now spread to almost 30 other countries and territories.


As economists warned that the outbreak in Italy would probably tip its already stagnant economy into recession, a senior official said the government may need to call on the European Union to offer leeway on its budget targets.

“There are resources the EU can give us in relation to economic events that could lower GDP considerably,” Deputy Economy Minister Laura Castelli told RAI radio.

Italy has proportionally the highest public debt in the euro zone after Greece’s and has long struggled to respect the bloc’s strict borrowing rules.

Conte warned that the economic fallout from the outbreak could be “very strong” but also said he was confident the contagion would come under control soon given the measures his government had taken.

He appealed for an end to political bickering, praised Italy’s health service as “among the most efficient and rigorous in the world” and urged foreign tourists to keep visiting.

“Italy is a safe country for travel and for tourism, probably safer than many others,” he told reporters.

Lombardy, the northern region that includes the financial capital Milan, and Veneto together account for about a third of Italy’s gross domestic product (GDP) and half of its exports.

Even before the outbreak of the virus, Italy was teetering on the edge of recession, after GDP fell 0.3% in the fourth quarter of 2019.

The tourist industry, which accounts for about 13% of GDP, fears a plunge in bookings as the government has ordered a clampdown on public events including soccer matches, cinemas and theatres.

Milan cathedral was closed to visitors, the Venice carnival, one of the world’s premier tourist attractions, was shut early for the first time in decades and airlines began restricting flights to Italy.

While the authorities urged people to remain calm, the upper house Senate in Rome obliged all parliamentarians and visitors to undergo a temperature check before entering the building.

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