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.
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:
- 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.
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.
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.